In the last installment of Peck’s noir, published in serial here in THE2NDHAND txt, private eye Harry Jome was making good progress on identifying the private eyes/goons tailing him, all as his “case,” the suicide of Ben Bergen and the curiosity of the Longtree family, gets ever more murky. Herein we learn something significant about Jome’s past — from none other than Sue Longtree herself…
Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).
There were a few worthless characters in Daim’s, ensconced in the crosshatched shadows surrounding the nine or ten tables. Felt and leather pockets shone in the meager light, and the floors were scrubbed with blue chalk and talcum powder. Behind a glass-topped counter that wasn’t filled with anything a grizzled guy in coveralls was playing with a penknife. He snapped the knife closed when he saw me and picked at his beard.
I’d been inside Daim’s three or four times for a couple of games on a job once, a minor marital squabble that netted a few dollars and not much else. Wes Daim, a stagnant guy in his mid-fifties who had done nothing but smile constantly and looked like he might implode at any moment from some inside joke. What impressed me about the place was the enigma of the farthest table in the rear. It was roped off and marked with a sign that read Do Not Touch. Only four balls were on the table, the eight ball, a solid and a high stripe, all lined up against the same rail, with the cue near the center of the red felt. I’d asked Wes about the unfinished game and he had mumbled something about an interruption eight years ago, and had walked into the bathroom and come out red-eyed, not wearing the fake smile he had gone in wearing. I didn’t pry anymore into it, nor had I been in there since.
Wes didn’t own the joint anymore, and the guy in coveralls was not nearly as friendly, or friendly at all.
“Someone named Lewishom comes around here,” I said to him.
The old guy pried some glue off the glass.
“You came in here just to tell me that?” he asked, not looking at me.
“It was more like a question. His name is Lewishom.”
Out of the shadows a glum kid of eighteen or less sidled up to the old man with a pool stick.
“Lewishom isn’t here just now,” the kid said.
“You have good ears,” I said.
“People at school tell me that all the time.” The kid relaxed his grip on the stick.
“You know Lewishom pretty well?” I asked.
“Yeah, he’s my uncle,” the kid said. “He’s a good guy. I think he would wonder what you want.”
“He would wonder that,” the bearded man agreed.
“I need to tell him what I want.”
Pool balls clanked together behind me, whispers coming from the back.
“He won’t be back for a few days. He’s away,” the kid said.
“Where is he away?”
The kid and the beard glanced at one another.
“We’ll tell him you stopped by,” the beard said.
“Who should I tell him was looking for him?” the kid asked.
“I’ll tell him myself,” I said. “Where do you suppose I can get to your uncle?”
The kid let his eyes wander over to the proprietor’s and the bearded man gave a slight nod.
“At the burlesque club,” the kid said.
The bearded man said, condescendingly, which didn’t seem to be his nature, “The only burlesque club in town.”
The kid gave me an address on 27th Street, and I hustled over, soaking my ankles in a series of puddles as I ran. I was going to get something fresh out of Lewishom.
The joint was called Shays Burlesque and would have been a useful definition of chintz. Polished dance floor covered with tables and chairs, booth-lined walls with candles running the length of a built-in shelf, and a dark wood bar that could accommodate nine or ten individuals. Dangling above the bar was a chaotic fixture of jagged, translucent shards that filtered a reddish light onto the rows of upscale liquor. For all of its glitter Shays was the opposite of dazzling. Besides Lewishom, easily identified by his tattered blue sweater and sitting in a booth close to the stage, the place was deserted.
I pulled up a stool and sat at the bar, ordered a club soda from a bartender who was obviously drunk. “We used to have 12 girls doing five shows a night,” he said, holding my five dollar bill out and scrutinizing it. On his forearm a violin was tattooed.
“How many girls you got now?” I asked.
“Still 12. But it ain’t the same.”
“What’s that symbolize?” I asked, pointing at the ink on his arm.
“A violin,” he said, and went to the mirror and started disarranging the bottles there.
By the stage Lewishom was bent at his table; he pinched out the candle’s flame in front of him, relit the candle with a lighter at his elbow and snuffed it out again.
At five after five the show started. Twelve girls pranced onstage wearing black corsets and white stockings and garters. Their moves might have been burlesque, but they just looked disordered and tired. A stocky man to the right was beating on a piano and a tall blond fellow was behind, wearing a dumb expression, and slapping his upright bass like he’d had a long-standing grudge against the instrument. The whole thing was amateur and the routine just made me sadder than I could have ever been at the moment.
All the while Lewishom was twisting his head, apparently following one of the girls with his eyes. From where I sat I couldn’t tell which one, and even if I could, the garish spotlight drained every girl of any personal features.
The show lasted a half hour with no break and the girls danced off the stage while the musicians struggled to finish the song.
Lewishom stood uncertainly and headed out a side door marked THIS IS NO EXIT. I went out the front. On my way the bartender raised his arm and showed me his tattoo again. I circled the building, grappled through a wet crowd and reached the alleyway. Lewishom was already talking to one of the girls while he shed the ash of a cigarette onto his shoe, and finally dropped the butt and stamped on it forcefully.
The girl was in a tan raincoat and I could see by her visible stockings that she hadn’t changed after the act. She was olive-complexioned and plump, a red silk scarf on her head.
I crouched beside a dumpster, close enough that I could hear Lewishom’s frantic talk and the girl’s coolly supercilious replies. In a couple of minutes it was so rainy I was getting used to being wet.
“Must be cold in that,” Lewishom said softly.
“What do you want?”
“I want to buy you a drink and take you somewhere warm.”
“I already told you no. I tell you every night and you keep not listening. You’re here every day.”
“But you haven’t told me no tonight yet.”
Lewishom continued. “I’ve never seen you in the daytime, you know that? I bet you look good over a plate of toast.”
“You’re creepy,” she said after a minute. “I’m going to have a drink all right, just not with you.”
“I’ve got some money and I’m going to leave her once this thing is taken care of.”
“I don’t want you to leave her; she’ll be almost upset or something.”
“She’s always almost upset. But I’m telling you, the second this thing is over we could travel away somewhere.”
“I don’t understand,” Lewishom said, much louder now. “How you can be so–”
“Because it’s fun,” she said and giggled.
“It’s not fun for me.”
“That’s why it’s fun for me.”
All of a sudden I heard the door creak open and someone exit the club. A few distraught whispers ensued. The girl and a blond man wheeling a huge music case went by me without noticing that I was there. She had the musician’s arm.
Leaving my spot behind the stink of the dumpster I saw that Lewishom was still rooted to the spot, shaking the rain out of his cuffs and just looking miserable, illuminated by a spazzing bulb above the door. He looked at me and walked back inside the club without bothering to look at me again and I decided to let my questions drop for the moment.
I was exhausted all over but couldn’t fall asleep till about five on Sunday morning, on the semicircular sofa in my living room. I was staring at the ceiling like it was etched with some of the answers I wasn’t getting, falling into dumb dreams about childhood and snowfalls and Sue Longtree, waking every few seconds in a sweat. My dreams were taunting me. I dreamt of everything but it was all the same. I was ready, alert. Sounds that didn’t bother me now bothered me. The quiet yearning street beyond the window with the infrequent car horn. The off-kilter ticking of the clock. The interminable tapping of faucets competing for annoyance.
When I came out of the last menacing dream I was on the floor and Sue Longtree was bending over to shake me. I tried pinching the ceiling. Sue replaced a pillow that had tumbled off the sofa.
“Don’t leave your door unlocked,” she said.
“What the hell do you want? I haven’t been sleeping too well.”
We sat next to each other on the sofa. I ironed the fatigue out of my eyes with my thumbs. I was morose and hot.
“You leave a trail of cynicism wherever you go,” she said.
“And so what do you want?”
“Nothing much. It’s Sunday.”
“What’s so great about Sunday?”
I saw that she was wearing a nice-fitting pencil skirt, her lipstick hyper-realistic against the rest of the picture.
“I know you’ll tell me how you found me,” I said.
“A phone book.”
“Rich people don’t own phone books.”
“I do, and that’s how I found you.”
“I’m still not convinced you own a phone book. Invite me over sometime and prove it.”
“Do you own a phone book, Mr. Jome, or do you just dial women at random?”
“I can’t afford luxuries.”
“You can now.”
“Now it’s too late.” I started to get up but she put a hand on my thigh, enough to quit thinking about getting up ever again.
“Too late for what?” she asked, digging around in her purse for a cigarette.
“All the numbers I need belong to people I don’t need. Mostly them, or their ex-wives or my ex-wives.”
“At least they’re in the plural.”
“Most awful things are.”
She tapped the cigarette on her right knee, or rather the stocking that covered it. Her hair looked good. Indecent snapshots of her body kept me busy while she lit the cigarette: slim breasts, protruding bottom, a swath of pubic hair kept neat and trimmed like a railroad track. A gold Zippo flicked in her palm with a little ruby lodged in the side.
“I don’t believe,” she said, “that you can be so dramatic.”
I crawled out of the gutter in my mind and said: “Anyway. What are you here for?”
“I’m here to have a conversation with you.” She blew smoke off to the side. “What is it exactly you do?” she asked.
“What else? Where’d you come from?”
“Well, I was young and pretty soon I was older and what happened in between makes no sense to me and won’t to you either. I studied medieval philosophy in college, learned just enough to twist any thought I could ever have, married twice and divorced twice. I spend at least three hours a day wishing I was doing doing something else than what I’m doing.” I leaned closer to her and she didn’t object. “I have a deep, almost religious disinterest in everything and the world treats me the same.”
“You’re interested in me, though.”
“My interest is piqued.”
“I think something else is piqued too.”
“I also get excited when I watch a tarantula in a glass cage.”
“Is that what I remind you of?”
“No, but a tarantula in a glass cage always reminds me of you now.”
She smoked in short, abrupt puffs, holding the cigarette close to her eyes.
“Does it?” she whispered.
“I think so,” I said. “I forgot the question.”
With the cigarette she was doing something more than smoking. The pursing of her lips and the strange eyes when she inhaled were about as distracting as a kid on a tractor.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” she suddenly asked.
“Not at all. Just somewhere else.”
She grinned weakly and stood, sliding on those fat sunglasses. It was the kind of face that would make you starve to death at a buffet.
“Then I’m afraid,” she said curtly, “that I have an appointment somewhere. Why don’t you want to come over tomorrow night?”
“You say it like you’ve already asked me. Will Parker and Porter be there?”
“Who’re they?” she asked.
I grinned wide. “Nobody.”
“You’re so smart you’re almost moronic. Pick me up at 7:30 tomorrow, and if you’re late, pick me up after that. But a string quartet is playing and I’d rather not miss it. At least not the Schubert.”
She dropped her cigarette into a glass of water on the coffee-table, watching it float there with obvious pleasure.
“I wouldn’t have pegged you for a Schubert fan. More in the Wagner line or somebody like that.”
“He’s the only one I know,” she said. “I don’t have the energy for that kind of thing.”
She fired up another cigarette while she was in the doorway.
“What do you have the energy for?” I asked.
“Nothing much,” she said. “But I’m learning.”
She lingered there in the doorway, pouting at me.
“How did you find out about me, anyway?” I asked. I sat up a bit on the sofa, not taking my eyes off her for an instant.
“I wasn’t kidding about the phone book,” she said.
“I mean altogether. How and why did you find me in the first place?”
“The first place was the first place I looked.” Sue didn’t smile and if it was possible for a joke to be remorseful hers was. “I researched you,” she said.
“Am I very engrossing?”
Her answer was an ambiguous scrunch of the shoulders. “You’ve had some trouble, so I guess that makes you entangled. And sad is another of your tendencies. I’ve had trouble, too,” she said, leaning on the doorframe. “So we’re close, Harry.”
“What did you find out about me?”
Sue spent the second cigarette, mashed it on the hallway floor, and put another in her mouth. This one she didn’t ignite.
“Not much,” she said. “Just a lot.”
“There isn’t a lot about me.”
“There’s enough to get a vague picture.”
“But I don’t like being photographed.”
Sue looked beyond me. “You spent some months in an institution right after you finished college,” she said, and her eyes found me, and there was glee in them, at how uneasy she was making me. “What were you in for?”
I got up and wiped some dust off the bookshelf.
“What were you in for?” she asked again.
I kept dusting, finally said, “I flailed when I got into the world. Some people flail, and I flailed and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. How’d you find out about that?”
She glossed over what I had said.
“And then you’re a private investigator all of a sudden.”
I didn’t appreciate the way she was talking, but she hadn’t said anything untrue.
“What happened in the madhouse?” she asked.
“I know, and that’s why I hired you. Wasn’t that your question? We’re both a tad crazy.” Sue was whirling the cigarette in her hand anxiously. “There’s three kinds of people,” she went on, watching the movement. “Those who need to be coddled; the ones who want to be pushed away; and lastly, the kind you aren’t so sure about.”
“Which one are you?” I asked.
“I’m not so sure.”
“People like to make generalizations,” I said. “About other people. Not about themselves though.”
“Like that?” she asked. There was a very faint, very cute dimple on her left cheek. Our gazes were tightly fixed on each other.
“Just like that,” I said.
Sue Longtree dropped her cigarette and walked a heel over it without having lit it. I swiped away another ball of dust and when I looked at the doorway the doorway was empty.
Out the window I watched her cross the courtyard and nod at a man with no hat sitting hunched on the bench in a loud blue sweater. Her bright umbrella faded away, blurred by colorful awnings and vendor’s carts.
I returned to the sofa and sat there till 10:30, so tired I wasn’t tired in the least, wondering what I was going to wear that night and feeling sour that my suit wasn’t ready yet.
I shaved diligently, nicking myself in several spots, threw on a bit of some aftershave. According to the mirror I was not looking grand. Now that I was moving around I was more tired than ever, in that hazy limbo between sleep and wakefulness that was quickly becoming for me a disreputably sustained present.
The rest of Sunday I floated around the apartment, wasting time cleaning, drinking coffee and talking to myself. I took a short walk in the rain, but I couldn’t outpace the compulsion to see Sue Longtree. I missed her and it was peculiar, insofar as I didn’t even like her very much.
Sunday evening had no sleep for me, and the rain was a score to my insomnia — propulsive, horrible, desperate. I tossed in bed until 5:15, flopping into a dream and back out with an irregular onrush of frenetic dreams, unsure whether they were dreams or fragments, indications, of a new reality. The world outside was morphing into all the dreams I wasn’t having, as nagging as a hangover. I was down, and rather than simply picking myself up I was digging down further.
I wasn’t sure when I’d quit sleeping, nor could I recall a night where I’d slept more than an hour. The long minutes drooled by — sweating, crazy fierce things. I had no one to be upset with. Because I couldn’t sleep I was also unable to wake.
For some foolish reason I was expecting dawn, sunlight, chirping birds and all the rest. But the rain was perpetual and the external city had the veneer of polished silver and bronze. I dragged myself out of bed and dressed.
The city was hazing over and the dirty streets were becoming less populous, fog and rain determining the shapes of landmarks. It was a little after 4:30 and I was levitating alone in a hushing elevator that blew dull music and belonged to the company that employed another William Florence.
On the 29th floor the doors clicked and parted and I was standing in a reception room of the Allied Insurance Company. The outfit controlled the whole floor, and the waiting area was shiny and transparent; some designer had gone to a lot of trouble to make the place as uninviting as possible. Shards of jagged white glass hung from the ceiling. Likewise, the walls were dark and quite glossy. All in all the place was nothing but perfect lines and zero decoration.
Behind a modernist desk a pouting secretary with too much indifference and a neat bob in her brown hair was polishing her wedding ring with a tiny scrap of cotton.
“I’m here to speak with William Florence,” I said.
“Not here,” she said, continuing to scrub.
“Where can I find him?”
“Not in here,” she said.
“Another address? He’s gone for the day?”
“Look,” and her eyes swept over me quickly. “He’s not here. Is there something I can do about his not being here?”
“There is, but it’s not a nice thing to say to a woman.”
She seemed to enjoy being insulted and smiled wanly at me with a big, white mouth, and stuck the wedding band on her index finger. Before pushing at the intercom button she was already talking into it.
“Mr. Perle. Someone for Mr. Florence.”
In another room a man’s subdued voice calmly replied from two places at once. “Is this gentleman a client?”
“She looked at me questioningly. I nodded and winked at her and she nodded and winked back.
“He says that he is.”
“Seven minutes,” the man said. “No. Eight minutes and show him in.”
“This Perle is very particular,” I said, checking my watch.
“Mr. Perle is very particular.”
“That’s quite the ring,” I said, pointing at the diamonds. “You have some fellow who has you all to himself?”
“This is my sister’s ring and her husband is an engineer. She lets me borrow it when he’s working on weekdays.”
“Why would you need that?”
“It worked with you.”
“I’m easy though.”
“All fellows are easy. Just smile and pretend like they’re too smart and they’ll do anything.”
“You got it right,” I said.
“You can sit over there,” she said without specifying where. “Mr. Perle is very particular.”
I stuck my hands in my trouser pockets and circuited the room. There was no sign of any chairs, or anything remotely relevant to insurance. Diplomas were archly displayed on the black walls like carcasses in a butcher shop. Photos of company parties and outings attached with rectangular captions explaining where they were taken and who was in the picture.
Laguna Beach. Mr and Mrs. Fred Schiller on a twin paddle boat.
Juneau. Mr. Perle and Mr. Freely enjoy a discussion and a schnapps onboard the U.S.S. Scuttlefish.
Toronto. Mr. Shumley, McDaniels and Peterman at the top of the CN Tower.
Next to these ostentatious example was a list of organizations that had benefited from Ally’s money-grubbing. A few feet down the wall, frames bearing senators and actors embracing Ally spokespeople and executives in warm poses.
In most of the pictures where he appeared Perle exhibited as a sallow and serious dark-haired man keen on anonymity, unaware that he was being photographed.
The intercom crackled.
“Tell him to come in,” Perle said.
“You can go in,” the secretary said.
“Thanks, you’ve been real swell about it,” I said.
I stepped through a tinted glass door that she held.
“First door on the left,” she murmured and withdrew.
I didn’t knock.
Perle’s office was expansive and burgundy and neat. Modernist paintings and landscapes lined the wall without any distinction of style or period. Perle was sitting forward on a leather settee, his serious, uncompromising face following me across the room. Wire-rimmed spectacles sat on the top of his brownish gray head. The nickel railheads of the settee shone fantastically in the track lights. Perle’s hands were pure white, and the tight-fitting tan suit was so well pressed he looked naked.
“I appreciate you seeing me,” I said.
Perle’s solemn face didn’t do anything.
“How’s the insurance business?” I asked.
He stirred finally, and when it dawned on him that he might have to speak, he said in a clean voice: “The insurance business has been doing remarkably well throughout history.” He studied my rainy shoes. “Are you a client of ours?”
“Not in the technical sense.”
“Then in what sense, please?”
“I’m a private investigator and I’m looking into the Longtree family. Ben Bergen specifically. Know him?”
I waited for a response, or some kind of reaction but Perle was inscrutable. His expression was as undemonstrative as a sack full of drab neckties. “Is there a question in that babble?” he asked. He looked at the clock on his desk.
“You have four minutes and you can begin with a name.” His eyes roamed.
“It’s Jome and I’m wondering if a man named Florence is around.”
“He was. One of the consultants for Ally.”
“He doesn’t work here anymore.”
“Then what happened?”
Perle squinted deeply.
“Let’s just say he doesn’t work here anymore.”
“All right. He doesn’t work here anymore. Why?”
“Mr. Jome, I believe you mentioned someone else’s name that you are investigating. How is William involved in that?”
“Bergen used Florence’s name?”
“And so?” What did this Bergen do? Did he rob a laundromat?” Perle grinned wolfishly, as though he’d just brought an audience to its knees.
“I don’t know why Bergen would have used Florence’s name unless they were close. Is Florence working on some assignment.”
“You have one minute,” Perle said, this time not even consulting the clock for justification.
“Why won’t you tell me about Florence? What’s the trouble?”
“Business is trouble.”
“I’m not intruding.”
“You are intruding and now since I have allowed my time to be wasted, I’m going to waste your time for a minute, Mr. Jome.” He put the glasses on and aimed his eyes at me. “Do you have insurance? Everybody in the world needs insurance.”
“I can think of one person who doesn’t.”
“Who would that be?”
“You.” I stood and shook my head. “Not going to tell me anything about Florence?”
He stayed on the settee.
“Nobody told you?” he asked.
“Told me what?”
“That everything is a game. And if you don’t know that, Mr. Jome, then you obviously aren’t winning. It surprises me no one told you that.”
“Maybe I heard it when I was researching an article called ‘How to be Condescending’.”
Perle’s tight mouth tightened more.
“I like the way you are,” he said.
“And I like the things you say. Thanks. Call me if you decide to feel right.”
I was reaching for the door when I spotted it, mixed in with the other artwork. It was the drawing of the orchard that was in the Bergen place. All the lines and sloppiness of the thing were identical; it was unsigned.
“Who did that one?” I asked as Perle studied me studying the drawing.
“I have no idea.”
“It’s on your wall.”
“When you’re rich you can afford to be ignorant of modern art. You can have it if you want,” Perle said.
I went back through the secretary’s station. The girl was still polishing her sister’s wedding ring.
“Get some fennel tea and a bottle of 90 percent,” I said.
“Does that get tarnish off?”
“No. But it might take the edge off you.”
TO BE CONTINUED…
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. Order via this page.
In the last installment of Peck’s noir, published in serial here in THE2NDHAND txt, we left private eye Harry Jome being choked by a squatter in a house he checked out as the offices of two private eyes who are investigating his investigation into the death of Ben Bergen, brother of Sue Longtree. The plot thickens in this installment…
Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).
“Hi,” the bearded man said casually into my ear with a blast of disenfranchised breath.
He pushed me farther into the room, paused my strangulation and forced me to kneel. The place was a shambles, the floor stripped to the plywood foundation and strewn with nails and screws and bits of trash fluttering in the wind and rushing in through a gaping hole in the east wall.
“Look,” I said when he released me, finding some fear to put in my voice. “I just bought a fetching suit and I’d like to be able to wear it if you don’t mind. I am trespassing, but I’m trespassing for a reason.”
“Yeah,” he garbled. “Yeah. Uh yeah,” and then, finality lacing his words, “OK. So? So what?” His intonation was freakish, like he’d been taken over by an untuned radio station.
I couldn’t be sure if he was armed or encyclopedically reckless. Turning slightly, I saw that my attacker was carefully biting the skin on his thumb, and not paying me any attention He was nothing but a deadbeat with long, sand-colored hair that knotted at the top of his wide head.
“You a squatter here?” I asked.
He’d forgotten all about me. Extraordinarily blue eyes snapped suddenly and there was kindness in them, but not a lot of kindness.
“Hey,” he said.
“Many people stop by?” I asked.
“Hey,” he told me.
“Don’t be shy.”
“Tomorrow,” he said.
“Tomorrow it will be.”
“Not today though?”
He shook his head slowly.
“Nope,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“Don’t I fucking look it?”
“More than most.” I thrust some dollar bills at him and brushed the debris off my pants.
“Who comes by here occasionally?” I asked.
“Two guys come by. They get the mail and right off. They don’t say hello or anything. Just get the mail and right off.”
“Is one of them fat and bald and shady.”
He considered the image for five seconds, narrowing his eyes, ran a hand through his knotted hair and narrowed his eyes some more.
“Yeah. And so is the other one.”
“Who else? A mean redheaded woman?”
“I’d like her a lot,” he said. “Bring her around if you can.”
All at once he lowered himself onto the floor cross-legged, rubbing his knees vigorously for warmth.
I started to leave.
“Guy named Lewishom,” he said as I was grappling away.
“What about a guy named Lewishom?”
“He came by and asked about the two guys who get their mail here.”
“What’s Lewishom look like?”
“Like ordinary. Blue sweater. Jacket. Head. Said he was a private eye and he was just curious.”
“Just curious about what?”
“About the two guys who get their mail here, and to let him know if and when they come back to get their mail.”
“What did you say to Lewishom?”
“I told him they both get their mail here.”
“Where did he say you could contact him?”
“A billiards hall. Daim’s Billiards. That was the one.”
“How about somebody named Wald?”
“No,” the guy said thoughtfully. “But I know guys by other names.”
“What kind of other names?”
“You wouldn’t know them, they’re not named Wald. Oh wait,” he said. “Wald, Wald. That sounds familiar.”
“Keep it moving along,” I said. “Maybe you’ll pick up some lint with it.”
“No,” he said. “I was wrong. It don’t sound familiar very much.”
The woman in the bonnet wagged her finger at me from a porch down the block, whose yard was filled with a gaggle of television sets in disrepair and plastic buckets overflowing.
“Thanks,” I said to her.
She said, “Vacant?” And nodding theatrically, she answered, “Vacant.”
I had another useless lead to go by, another big squeeze from all sides. Going from 51st Street back downtown was a short, wet journey, reduced to looking at the hint of a defunct metropolis. I passed a heap of cars in a fenced-in yard. Inside the parameter men were rooting for objects of value. Stained glass windows flickered at me from the white church on 46th Street, the sole business in the area that was still rolling high. On 34th Street there was the old train station, now a megalith of jagged panes of glass, a gouged exterior, one railcar out front for nostalgic reasons that had been forgotten long ago.
I kept on. The rain was flooding into my shoes, and the instant I was back downtown I went into a loud department store and bought myself a new pair of shining wingtips.
“What do you think about that?” I asked the clerk.
“About what, sir?” the clerk asked sleepily.
“These new shoes.”
“They’re good. If we sell them they’re good.”
“You bet they are.”
On Saturday I spent the a.m. hours in my bathtub scouring old documents for any mention of the Longtree family, some photocopies of clippings, features and the rare photograph of men with beards in breeches and frigid women in billowing dresses. I perused back to the beginning. From what I could gather, the story went something like this:
In the mid-1800s they’d come over from Scotland, settled up north and didn’t budge from the area. Langley Longtree, Daddy’s great-great grandfather, was convicted of slaughtering his butcher in the old country and fled to America, disgraced but anonymous for a brief time. Apparently, Langley unsuccessfully tried to do away with some more people and eventually strangled himself in prison with his silk handkerchief. Daddy’s great grandfather, Gregory Longtree, tended the orchard and disappeared after a gruesome lynching of the mayor’s wife during a holiday weekend around 1900.
The narrative was as obvious as a madhouse frenzy, like something worse than the plot of a gothic romance by someone who didn’t like people, or cogency, very much.
As far as Daddy Longtree’s father was concerned, the only son among a legion of daughters, there wasn’t much. He built the orchard into profit and lived in relative peace until the double suicide at the inn. The daughters, however, pretty much wandered the orchard and eventually dropped off the record. History doesn’t generally notice those who don’t attempt to magnify it. The violence in the family didn’t take me aback; even in Sue Longtree there was something primitive and dreadful and cold. She was an arrogant mystery and there was no solution to her, just as there was none to her ancestors. It was a crazy story that included disappearances, reappearances of key figures, darkness and havoc. I couldn’t understand it.
I mulled over the Longtrees for about an hour, accompanied by a sloppy cello sonata by a German romantic who’d obviously had his heart broken continuously.
The sound of the rain was growing obnoxious. The tailor called to tell me that the suit might be ready on Monday. There was no chance it would be done before that. I was depressed about it but the tailor didn’t seem to care.
I showered and cursed my tailor while I examined the contents of my closet. Toweling off I passed the window and happened to notice Parker in the courtyard, shaded by a poplar and talking to a fat companion, who I guessed must have been Porter. Another man was a few yards behind them without an umbrella. Parker pointed out my apartment to his partner.
I decided to take a chance on a big detective agency with the hope that Wald was employed there, but didn’t hope for much. It was called the Bizby Detective Agency, and I walked to an office that signaled the very end of 34th Street, over by the swelling banks of the river.
I had no idea it could rain so much. Twigs and kids’ toys and cans floated down the street. The agency was in an old factory that used to manufacture rubber bands. Now the grounds were treeless and not a slip of foliage was visible.
Inside, the expansive single room building was spartan and off to both sides were labyrinthine corridors. Serious men in hats with files tucked under their arms roamed in and out of the corridors, an atmosphere hectic and mechanical, as though everybody had been spat out of a machine.
I was forwarded by a harried secretary to a cubicle in the middle of the main room of small desks, where a bluff of a woman in a brown wool suit was sitting with a file open in front of her. She had her head lowered but strained her masculine, lusty eyes to look up at me.
“I handle the men,” she said, crumpling the folder and delivering it to the wastebasket under the desk as though it were a ritual.
All around us typists hammered on keys with a sound as deafening as a catastrophic hailstorm. Occasionally all the typewriters would stop at once, and the woman would listen distantly and a little angrily until they resumed.
“One of these men you handle is someone I’m looking for,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “So?”
“I was hoping you could tell me what he’s working on so I could feel better about him bothering a case I’m on.”
The typewriters stopped again in unison and the silence lasted for about two seconds.
“That’s not something I can do.”
“Who’s the supervisor here?” I asked.
“I am. I hand out the cases based on our consultants’ abilities and do all the follow-up work.”
“You’re Bizby?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “You a private dick?” she asked.
“We need more private dicks here.”
“Why can’t you tell me about this person I’m looking for?”
“What’s this person’s name and we’ll see where that leads us?”
“Wald?” I said.
“Walter Wald,” she said to herself. “Nothing I can tell you.”
“I bet you can tell me more than that.”
“We have strict policies here,” she said. Her head was still down and her eyes were getting used to my presence.
“So you have strict policies here. Strict policies are generally made for people who don’t comply by them.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” she asked.
“You must have something,” I said. “As one person in this rotten business to another.”
“Oh, I have a lot of files,” she said, her voice and face in monotone. Over the sound of the typewriters I had to lean close to hear what she was saying and it didn’t help that she was talking so low.
“The reason that I can’t tell you anything about Walt Wald is also something else I can’t tell you,” she said.
“I am really asking,” I said. I smiled brightly, and whether it was because no one had smiled at her in a long time, or because she saw how artificial it was, she relented.
“Mr. Walter Wald is no longer employed by Bizby,” she said.
She blinked and I blinked back at her.
“One morning,” she went on, “he was just gone. His stuff was gone. And there was a vulgar note for me taped to his chair.” The woman went on talking about the note and how rude it was and how lousy Wald was and how everybody complained that he couldn’t close a case if it had a latch, how he was probably an alcoholic. “Everybody’s an alcoholic in this business,” she said. “Except for the people who won’t admit it.”
I left through the sea of clattering, wondering what Wald was up to. Nobody so much as glanced at me.
I took an overpopulated bus north to 24th Street, where a William Florence was located. Parker and Porter hopped on at the rear of the bus and stood with their backs facing me next to a grimy fellow with a large book who kept insisting that they find a seat.
At the next stop, a guy in a blue sweater got on and went for the rear and sat adjacent to the grimy fellow with the large book. The bus was becoming some kind of hardboiled convention.
The address for William Florence was in a bland neighborhood with a grassy median running through it and one or two trees that looked like they’d just been stuck there for later use somewhere else. It was a middle-class limbo fighting hard to appear upper-class. The yards were square and zoned with short fences and uncared for thorny bushes. Some kids with dirty knees were tossing around a rubber ball and a group of yellow dogs was watching them and itching their panting faces.
I tapped on the door of a little white house with lace curtains in the windows, a reclining chair on the porch and some spilled soil on the floorboards. Boxes of wine bottles were piled here and there.
The guy who answered the door stood behind a torn screen, feeble and in layers of bulky clothing. He was past seventy but well cared for. Meticulously combed gray hair, a gray mustache that wasn’t dissimilar from a Civil War major’s. Frosty air stirred in the apartment with the clatter of a second person on the premises and the sound of the local news.
“Yes?” he asked, drawing out the word until it almost resembled another.
Inside was the sound of the local news.
“William Florence?” I asked.
“Yes?” he said again.
“Do you know someone named Ben Bergen?”
“No, is he running for office or something.” The old man leaned on the doorframe and licked his mustache.
“Not really. He’s dead.”
“Why should I vote for him, then?”
“I’m asking if you’ve heard the name.”
“I have heard it from you just now.”
Something caught Florence’s attention out in the street and his wrinkled face wrinkled some more. The kids had Parker and Porter surrounded, and the dicks were trying to remain incognito, but the kids were relentless and kept badgering them to catch their ball.
“This neighborhood,” the old man said. “Never used to be like this.”
“What did it used to be like?”
“Not like this. We used to have parades once a week.” He waited for a response and went on, “I never said it was exciting. I’m just saying it never used to be like this.”
“How about the name Longtree? That sound familiar to you?”
“You seem very confused,” he said. “I already told your friend or whomever that I don’t know the name Longtree.”
“What friend?” I asked sharply.
“Man came here this morning asking about the things you’re asking about. Don’t you have a friend who came asking?”
“I don’t have any friends.”
“Maybe that’s the problem. So who are you, young man?”
“I’m a private detective and–”
“Oh,” he said jovially. “Like in those books? Those Dominic Early things.”
“Just like those,” I said.
“I didn’t know there were people like in those things. I’m glad you stopped by because I wouldn’t have known that.” And he slammed the door in my face.
Down the block the kids had dispersed into small delinquent cliques elsewhere. Parker and Porter were pretending to be engrossed by an electrician fixing a telephone pole, each glancing at me. The electrician appeared irritated by the two dicks.
Who’d been asking about the Longtrees? I asked myself, and I was about to start knocking again when another bus halted, aimed downtown and thankfully vacant, at the bus stop.
Hurrying to get on I abandoned Parker and Porter. Both men hustled to catch up, waving their arms at the bus driver who paid them no attention whatsoever. Through the rear window I watched the portly men recede in their disappointed anger. Porter threw his hat on the ground and Parker picked it up and mashed it on his partner’s head. They were so cute in their routine that they weren’t even cute.
I wondered, not for the first time, whether I was as inept as they were in this Longtree debacle. I was missing something and Sue was holding out, but on what I could only conjecture.
I returned to the office, got a batch of blank paper, and waited ten minutes before Parker and Porter drifted up to the building, out of breath and started to see me. Turning with my umbrella I let them follow me to city hall.
The two hapless private dicks were seated on a bench right outside of city hall sheltered from the rain in a dilapidated gazebo. Both were in monochrome vests, sleeves rolled into sloppy bunches, suit coats folded in the empty space between them. To bait them I’d ducked into city hall carrying the stack of blank sheets and deposited the papers in the nearest wastepaper basket. I thought maybe the act would bring out their boldness and it did.
When they saw me Parker stood up, trying to be menacing and cool. His partner had given up on anything more excessive than tilting his head. Rain ran down both their faces, and I was discomfited by how closely they resembled one another.
“Jome,” Parker said in his razor-blade-on-whipped-cream voice. “Sit with us a second, huh? What do you say to that?”
Porter took the coats and set them on his lap and Parker and I sat. Three middle-aged guys sharing the silence of an existential dread. All we needed were bowler hats and canes and a box of caramel drops. We were as fascinating as ice melting in a drain. Parker and Porter moved to crunch against me.
Crisp leaves blew at our feet in a multicolored river.
“I brought my partner along,” Parker said, “because we want to know something and maybe so do you. This is my partner.” Porter smelled like cheap aftershave, and he was only about an inch smaller than Parker.
“What we’d like to know,” Parker said. “Is what it is we aren’t supposed to know.”
“What we don’t know yet,” Porter said. “Such as what’s doing at city hall these days?”
“But we are planning on knowing the facts,” Parker said.
I turned from one to the other of the private dicks, quickly evaluating the knowledge that they didn’t know a single thing about a single thing.
You two boys figure it out and I’ll be right here if you need anything,” I said.
“What stymies us,” Porter said, “is what’s going on with Sue Longtree and you and why’d you go into city hall like that?”
Parker said, “And we’re going to be around you until we find out.”
“The lady has you looking at a suicide,” Porter said.
“So what’s so big about it?” Parker asked. “It ain’t real fascinating but you and she are acting like it’s real fascinating. So why is it so fascinating?”
“What’s the real thing that’s going on here?” Porter said.
There was a little green park going brown across the street, and people in suits were hurrying around in the rain. Next to us on another bench was a man leaning our way, in full denim attire. A wind from the east blossomed and Porter clutched at the hat he’d thrown on the road a little while ago.
“Our affiliation is purely professional,” Parker said.
“Only thing professional about either of you is your absence,” I said. “And that’s debatable.”
Almost in unison they each took one of my arms in fat, quaking hands.
“Listen, Jome,” they said in a gravelly duet.
“Listen, Jome,” Parker said for a second time. “This is serious and we’re serious about it. Our employer would like to be kept abreast and our client is serious, too.”
“I’m sure your client is serious. Everybody’s serious.”
“What’s the drift?”
“There isn’t any drift. You said you have some information for me.” I brushed off their mitts, standing, and glared at them.
“Well,” Parker said. “When you throw us some information we can toss some back to you and we can play that till our arms get tired.”
I jerked a finger at Porter. “Why’s he so quiet all of a sudden?”
“Jome is funny,” Parker said to his partner.
“He thinks he’s funny,” Porter said.
“Yeah, and he’s not very funny.”
“He’s not very funny at all because he thinks he is.”
A woman halted a dog to urinate in front of us and the woman blushed at the three of us and walked off.
“Fuck you,” Parker said.
“I’m glad you’re being yourself again,” I said.
City hall was bristling with suits and briefcases. Somehow these goons understood less than I did about the Longtrees and Bergen.
“You’re not saying anything helpful,” Parker said.
“How about this,” Porter offered. “We’ll tell you something helpful and then you can tell us something helpful about you and Sue Longtree.”
I did my best impression of being impassive.
“All right?” Parker said.
Porter nodded. “Yeah, I think he might be OK with that.”
“There’s another guy on you,” Parker said. “Has the name of Wald and this Wald is sitting right over there.” He flicked his head toward the guy in jeans and a jean jacket and smiled.
“Thanks,” I said. “But that’s recycled news.”
“So what do you have for us?” Parker asked.
Porter said, “Because we’ve just given that to you.”
“As a gift.”
I adjusted my coat sleeves that had been crinkled by their bulbous mitts. “Once I get the drift of something I’ll be sure to let you know,” I said. I fell in with the conglomerating crowd. “See you fellows later.”
“That’s not very nice,” one of them said.
“Not very nice at all,” said the other.
When I passed him the man in denim quickly scurried to his feet and followed me along the sloshed avenue. I walked the bridge over the flooding river and he was there still, pausing when I paused. Reaching my apartment I saw him ebb and disappear further uptown. Sure that he was gone, I doubled back and took a cab to Daim’s Billiard Hall.
TO BE CONTINUED…
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. Order via this page.
In the previous installment of Peck’s noir, published in serial here in THE2NDHAND Txt, lust begins to seriously cloud private eye Harry Jome’s judgment — not just for his commissioner, Sue Longtree, but for near every living thing that pushes into his vision. A wild chase to understand Longtree’s brother’s suicide in upstate Sutter Falls, N.Y., leads to a meet with the proprietor of a golf club with indoor foliage near as wild as the Longtree family orchard’s, and along the way Jome seems to find himself tailed, investigated as well…
Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).
Late on Friday afternoon the cop from Sutter Falls accidentally took my call after I told the secretary that I was a local politician.
“This is Banes,” the cop said, his voice dripping with nepotism.
“I’m Harry Jome and I’m not a politician,” I said.
The voice immediately roughened up.
“Why would you say you were? I don’t see the sense in that.”
I said the name Ben Bergen, and when that didn’t flip the switch, I said William Florence.
“William Florence. Suicide,” the sergeant said with the tone now of a blunt tool. “What else?” he asked.
“You mean Ben Bergen,” I corrected.
“Whatever you like to call him. Guy had no identification and checked in under the name of Florence.”
“You’re pretty thorough,” I said.
“If that’s an insult you can go climb a pine tree; if it’s a compliment, thanks, we all appreciate it.”
“How’s things up north?” I asked.
“Not too bad. A few minutes ago a couple of the boys brought in some coffee and I drank it.”
“No doubts that it was a suicide?”
The sergeant breathed heavily. “Yeah. If there ain’t nothing else we have some real things to do here. So you can get off my line, buddy.”
“The maid was the first person in the room?”
“What’s your name again?”
“What’s your last name?”
“Jome, I pretty strongly suggest that you call the motel yourself and get the hell off this line. We have a big zero over here and there’s other messes to sweep away from town.”
“What about Daddy Longtree? He in your jurisdiction?”
“What the hell kind of name is that?”
“British, I think, but I don’t know why that should matter. Ben was supposed to be visiting him. Longtree Orchard.”
“OK, Jome,” the sergeant said gently. “Ben Bergen. William Florence. Whoever. Now get off my goddamn line. You boys need to quit molesting us.”
“That fink Lewis-something. I don’t like him and I don’t especially like you and you can tell him I said that.”
“What’s this Lewis-something want?”
“Same thing as you. Same thing as everybody.”
“And what’s that?”
“What we don’t have. We can’t give you what we don’t have.”
“You got nothing, huh?” I asked.
“And lots of it.”
He either fell asleep or hung up. I flipped open my notebook and was shocked to see its condition. First I noticed the absence of my notes and the mangled tear at the head of the binding. The pages had been ripped out aggressively. I wasn’t too upset, as what information I had stored in the notebook was easy to replicate and not very demonstrative to someone unfamiliar with the people who made up the Longtree case.
The second revelation was an embellished business card, an eye peering through a split, billowy cloud. Parker & Porter, Consultants is what it said. There weren’t any particulars, as in what they consulted in, nor an address or contact information. On the reverse of the card, in measly scribbling, was the blatant warning and observation: Fuck You, Jome. I really needed a lock on my door, or a brand-new profession.
Clover’s Bar was the kind of joint that had all but shut down without anyone noticing. Its entrance was off an alleyway adjacent to 19th Street, along a portico lined with the sick geometry of spent bottles of beer. The interior was washed in signed photographs of celebrities, all forged in the same hand and snowed with dust.
The jukebox off in a corner was on, playing a song about a cocaine fiend who can’t find anywhere to get any more cocaine.
Sue Longtree was already drinking a whiskey sour amid the decay as I joined her in a booth. When the barman wearied of watching me motion at him, he came over sullenly and I ordered a soda water. Sue looked at me over the red and white straw in her glass. Near her elbow was a plaid wallet.
“I’m surprised to see you in a place like this,” I said.
“It’s the only spot where I don’t have to be around people like me.”
I stretched out my hands. “I don’t have much more for you that I didn’t have this afternoon.”
“I was hoping you’d have something for me,” she said. “Something small, at least. What happened with Montero?”
“Why’re you being so coy?”
It was so dim in the alcove where we sat that it was almost blurry. Sue was wearing a shade of lipstick that did not flatter her ordinary lips. She’d changed her clothes for a black V-neck sweater that was cut low and that didn’t seem to cover anything beneath it. One sly nipple pressed at the wool fabric. The jewels in her necklace were disheartened in the meek light.
“Go ahead,” she said. “I enjoy knowing where my money’s gone.”
“How’s your husband?”
“Weak. Disgusting. Infantile.”
Soda water was brought to me in a pint glass, carbonation hissing at me and spilling onto the table.
“Well?” I asked.
“It would be pretty outstanding if you told me what’s going on with you. You seem mean. You said you wouldn’t be mean to me anymore,” she said churlishly.
“I never said that, and why’d you hire these people to search my office?”
One corner of her mouth twitched. “What people are they?” she asked.
“Parker. Or Porter. Or both. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. And somebody named Lewis something-or-other.”
She bit into an ice cube. “That wasn’t my doing,” she said.
“I’ll argue with you.”
“So argue then.”
“And doesn’t it seem slightly odd that your brother would use the name William Florence at the motel?”
“Before you said it wasn’t.”
“Now I’m saying it is. Who’s William Florence?”
“You’re the detective.”
Across the bar a man in a sharkskin suit pulled a chair out for a lady in a green sequined dress. Immediately they started squabbling and picking at the pretzels in front of them, the woman chuckling in a cruel way at the man.
“I don’t know what I am,” I said.
She drained the whiskey in a short sip, a giggle flickering in her green gaze. Then she spat an ice cube into the glass. “So?” she said. “So what? I’m paying you to find out what happened to Ben and you’re just–”
“You already know what happened to him.”
“–twiddling your face at me. I know what happened to him. I don’t know why and that’s what you’re for.”
“There’s something else,” I said.
“If there’s something else maybe you can tell me what it is.”
“If I knew what it was I’d tell you.”
A man in a blue sweater sidled up to the bar and leaned into the barman’s ear and went out. I’d seen the man before, in the same sweater, but Sue interrupted my recollection.
“What do you have on Ben?” she asked.
“I don’t have anything. You want me to make something up?”
“That would be an improvement.”
“You’re cold and you’re demure.”
“If my personality bothers you you can hand me back the load of money I gave you.”
“All right,” I said. “It’s true that I don’t have three nice things to say about you and right now I can’t think of two of them.”
Sue grinned, circling her emptied glass on the table and peering at me with something like condescension.
“You haven’t had too many cases, have you?” she asked.
“Not like this,” I said.
“Your worst problem with me is how much you like me and how much you’re willing to prove that you don’t.”
I wanted her green eyes and the flex of her jaw and that single nipple that jutted at me. She was the kind of woman who needed something to prevent her from thinking. Her slender arms were hairless, with thin fingers splayed out like claws. The supreme awfulness of the place settled in. I was yearning for her and she knew it and I had just found out.
Fifteen minutes later I’d divulged what I knew so far about Ben and the Longtrees. She wasn’t thrilled.
“I’d kind of expected you to have this all wrapped up by now,” she said.
“I’m going to check the public archives in the morning,” I said.
Faraway glimmers shot into her eyes.
“Why would you do that?” she asked.
“Why wouldn’t I do that?”
I stood and the barman stared me down as though I were ducking out on the tab.
“I’ll get this one,” Sue said.
“Good,” I said. “I’ll get the next one.”
“The next one?” she asked.
“It would only be fair.”
Sue smiled wide. “I really do think you like me,” she said.
“I haven’t said otherwise. But this isn’t really about who likes whom better.”
Sue ordered another drink. “Have you ever heard the name Wald?” she asked.
“He came by my house asking about you.”
I fixed a quizzical look on her. “Why would this person do that?”
“I wouldn’t ask you if I knew.”
“You wouldn’t tell me at all if you didn’t know more than you’re saying. What did he ask?”
“Where he could find you.”
“And you told him you don’t know.”
“I told him where he could find you. He seemed to be investigating something. He brought up the name William Florence before I’d admitted to anything.”
“I’ll look into it,” I said.
Not waiting for her smile to become more irritating, I left Clover’s, expecting the rain to have eased up but finding that it had become clangorous on the streets. Wald didn’t ring any bells. I didn’t think I’d ever heard of him, but I would very soon. What did he want with Sue? How did he know about her, or about me for that matter? I wasn’t quite sure what to figure on.
I stayed out of the rain for a minute, sheltered underneath a busted neon sign. I peeked into the window and saw that Sue was still smiling at me from inside, a tight, lascivious smile that prodded me in the trousers.
Back when I was a fresh, eager kid I spent the weekends I was not getting plastered at the 6th Street Library, pouring over Aquinas and the other deadly serious boys, the plague, the buying of indulgences, murderous kingdoms, fiefdoms and all the rest of that drab stuff. It was there that I’d met Wilma Baxter, a short, pallid girl with long bangs and straightforward eyes. For a librarian she was rather boozy and flippant and we went a few rounds but it didn’t amount to much of anything. She still worked there.
The library was a graystone, Brutalist slab that stretched the length of the entire block. The morning after my meeting with Sue at Clover’s was relentlessly rainy.
Sue told me that she’d foraged around but most of the vintage documents and clippings were buried or locked away. A stipulation in some will also kept all public records dealing with the Longtree clan off limits for the time being, and so Sue hadn’t come away with much but frustration.
Several stuffed-looking employees attempted to show me to the newsprint section of the archives, where reading machines buzzed tiredly. I stooped at the information desk amid a huddle of zealous amateur historians all vying for the big hunch, and requested some editions of the local paper that would include the name Longtree. The name isn’t a common moniker, but the clerk was afraid, he said, that the information was privileged. He was lanky and he was looking at me like I should have been wearing a tie and a cravat.
“I was testing you,” I said. “Get me Wilma, will you?”
“Is Ms. Baxter expecting you?”
“Well, we had sex a few times.”
The guy fumbled for the intercom and paged the woman, his voice cracking like glass.
Wilma had become even more of a sardonic woman, only now she was a few years older and didn’t care half so much about appealing to everyone as she did in school.
“Nice of you to come by just to see me,” she said in a tone, that, were it a color, would have been copper.
“You come in handy now and then,” I said as she took my arm and led me to an uninhabited reading table in a corner where the shadows lurked. She was in a dark pencil-skirt, and her figure cut into the skirt, emphasizing how broad her hips had grown. Her bleached blond hair was brushed straight back, and there were creases at the corners of her mouth from smirking too much at idiots.
“After all,” I continued. “You do fancy yourself in love with me and you always have. Ever since back then.”
“There’s a lot of love in the world and you are a very slim part of it,” she said. Books were piled all over the table, spilling onto their bindings.
We sat quite close across from each other and stared. Her perfume was so strong I felt like it had been sprayed in my face.
“You look pretty different, Harry,” she said, her eyes fixated on my mouth.
“I didn’t mean to surprise you,” I said.
“You didn’t surprise me is what I’m telling you. Different is good.”
“I thought different was bad.”
“It depends on what you mean by different. And, I guess,” she said, taking one of my hands. “What you mean by bad.”
I felt her touch in my ankles.
“Could you get some stuff for me?” I asked suddenly.
Wilma loosened her grip. “Oh,” she said. “What would you do for it?”
Someone in a blue sweater flashed by and started looking at the titles on a shelf nearby.
“I’ll be nice to you.”
“Anyone can be nice to me,” she said.
“Then I’ll be rude.”
“You are rude,” she said. “But I like you and I like thinking that sometimes you might think about me and take me to an expensive dinner for example.”
“Nope. I don’t think about you and I won’t take you to dinner.”
“You’re romantic,” she said. “And dumb. But honest.”
She ushered me into a room the size of a phone-booth laid on its side and sat glaring at a screen of microscopic type.
“What do you need?” she asked.
“Anything with the name Longtree stamped on it,” I said.
Wilma kissed the back of my neck and went away when I told her to go away. Twenty minutes later she returned with some clippings in an overstuffed folder.
“Just don’t take the originals with you, huh?” she said.
“You might lose your job for this,” I said.
“Not when I’m married to the head librarian as of last Tuesday.”
“Lucky girl,” I said, patting her waist.
“Lucky guy,” she said.
The work was tedious. Every once in a while I surveyed the slow bustle of scholars in the rooms beyond.
Daddy Longtree’s folks were devout Methodists, the founders of Longtree Orchard, and also of a colonial inn on the grounds that had been quaintly dubbed Longtree Manor, but since then had been torn down to make room for more trees. Asked by a newspaperman why he had come to this country to start an orchard business, Simon Longtree responded, in that folksy eloquence of the period, that he couldn’t have achieved much else with a name like his.
The article was written 20 years after the events, an homage to the Longtrees and printed in a bland Sutter Falls newspaper. Around that time the Longtree business was shipping apples all over North America and considering whether or not to export to Europe. They decided that they would not export to Europe.
Simon and his wife Margaret were discovered in a luxurious suite at the inn by a gardener who’d come asking about his paycheck. Margaret was on the floor in her nightdress, a knife sticking out of her stomach. Her husband had drowned in the bathtub; there was an inconsequential bump on the back of his head from the soap holder. The fall hadn’t knocked him out and, it seemed, Simon Longtree drowned fully alert.
But it was the conclusion to the report that struck me: “The various tragedies meted upon the Longtree relations appeared then to have reached a bitter — yet considering later events — not more bizarre crescendo.”
When I was finished with the article I searched for a William Florence in the city directory. There were two leads, the first living on 24th Street, the second a business address on 2nd. Browsing through a pamphlet-sized census I learned that Sutter Falls did not claim a resident with Florence’s name.
I took away some photocopies of the juicy material from the rest of the Longtree files. Wilma wasn’t at the information desk, but I didn’t feel much like waiting to exchange more libidinous awkwardness with her and stepped out onto the massive library steps.
Rain stuttered on the cab’s roof as I advised the driver how to make egg salad. Getting out of the vehicle at my apartment, rain pummeling the sidewalk, the city was condensed into a gray, melodramatic lingering place.
After the library I went to a tailor’s, to a guy named Cramm I’d sometimes heard about. What I needed was a suit and a good one. Nice gray seersucker with a single-breasted coat and a matching vest.
By the time I was being fitted for a suave pricey three-piece at Cramm’s little basement haberdasher’s I was jubilant. I hadn’t bought a suit in a while. The tailor didn’t seem as excited as I was. He was a grim-eyed, balding man with pursed lips and a fraudulent grin that wavered at the least provocation.
I put half down.
“I’m not usually open on Saturdays,” he said by way of explanation.
“Me neither,” I said.
“And I do not work on Sundays.”
“So when will it be ready?” I asked. “Are there any days you do work?”
He shrugged lazily, making the shrug look like a lot of work.
“Wednesday maybe. We have a lot of orders at the moment. I can’t promise anything.”
“How about quicker than that?” I asked.
“I can’t promise anything,” he said.
I paid him an extra $5 but he still looked uncertain, so I left, suddenly sour. Late afternoon had brought stronger rains and sorry clouds that roiled and swept by. I found a restaurant uptown and played with the salt and pepper shakers awhile. The waitress was puffy and liquored. I ordered a cheese sandwich on rye and a glass of milk.
Who cared that some guy had offed himself in one of those moments of weakness meant for the stage? Why a woman like Sue, who had the scruples of a hungry fish, would go through the trouble of hiring a private detective for this didn’t register any kind of sense. Maybe there was more to it. Maybe she was just daffy, like the rest of them — Bergen’s wife a drunk, father a hermit, and Sue too crazed for anything sobering. So the Longtrees were a nuclear collection of sociopaths and suicidal agrarians. To me it was as empty as a wedding vow, and I was being paid — thinking about it was directly against my own interests, whatever my interests were aside from the money in my freezer.
In any case, I was pretty joyous about the new suit, in spite of the rain.
I poked around the newspaper for a minute while the tired waitress kept sliding the receipt closer to me.
Back at the office I rang some contacts in the journalism racket and found out that Parker & Porter Consulting was a legitimate operation, at least on paper. Also that their offices were at 301 East 51st Street, a depleted junkyard section of town. I eased myself out of the office and into a cab. The windows were fogged and I wiped my finger into the condensation until the cabbie told me to quit mussing up his vehicle.
51st Street was drenched in the quietness of all drenched neighborhoods, but the kind of crouched hush that can get loud in a hurry. The trash bins were excessive and overflowed with water, the cops were nowhere, a few residents wandered back and forth on broken porches. They were all black and white and frustrated.
Number 301 had a row of busted windows. A dirt path led to a sheet of plywood that doubled as an entrance. Two orange and white signs warned me that trespassers would not be tolerated. I had to hop onto the sloped porch from the ground. I pounded on the door and heard nothing but the porch dislodging under my feet. Radio news rehashed the events of the world from somewhere close by.
“Vacant,” someone said behind me.
An old woman in a bonnet and white flats was staring at me when I turned, going back and forth frenziedly in a rocking chair on the next porch over.
“You know if someone was here a while ago?” I asked nice. “Two guys maybe?”
“Vacant,” was all she said.
I said thanks and started down the destroyed steps. Halfway down the steps I pivoted abruptly and kicked the weakened door off its bottom hinge, and slipped inside the place. I stood silently for a minute, watching the spray of wood as it fluttered to the floor. There wasn’t much to the place except for a roll-top desk and a moldy teabag on top of the desk. I took a step in and paused.
Relieved of it rungs, a warped wooden ladder was propped on the wall, alongside a few dozen boxes with paperwork spilling out. I was cocky about breaking through a door for the first time and took a couple of footfalls into a wreck of pink insulation flowering around me and a collapsing ceiling, went over and grabbed a handful of papers from the boxes, reading contracts from cases and the occasional tax form.
Whoever he was, the guy sprang on me fast from my periphery. Then there was a scuffle as he wrapped my arm behind me to pin me against the wall, a beard tickling my spine, and he had me by the neck tight in the crook of a muscle. It happened so quick my first response was to laugh, and I gave one long chortle before I couldn’t laugh anymore and didn’t want to and he was laughing too.
TO BE CONTINUED…
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. Order via this page.