In the last installment of Peck’s noir, private eye Harry Jome cases the identity of two fellow businessman who have been following him for the better part of the tale — goons hired by his client’s husband as part of divorce proceedings. As of the beginning of this installment, one of the goons is dead, and Jome’s intimacy with the client, Sue Longtree, continues. After this: only two installments remain — stay tuned.
Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).
There was a circus of Longtrees in my dream, some in period costume and others current, segued and dark-eyed, ready to slaughter one another at the drop of a glance. I was ignored by them all. They’d congregated in a vast, dead field where indeterminable fruit was being harvested, packed into crates lain waiting in the rears of white trucks, and driven off with a groan of antique engines.
I wandered among them, searching for Sue, wholly lost in the enormous, apparently endless orchard that had borne every single goddamn one of them and looked to be in some kind of golden age.
One youthful Longtree drank vinegar from a clear glass cup.
Another was plucking grass and eating it.
And a third, a woman, watched me longingly from the restive spot under a tree.
I counted the rough patches of cloud overhead. The horizon in every direction — a blisteringly red sunset — was obviously as fake as a Hollywood backdrop. Brushstrokes could be seen clearly, and streaks of paint dripped down from the convex sky, forming puddles at the base of this fake world.
For a dreamscape, it was the work of a dilettante craftsperson with not a whole lot of expertise.
On the other side of the field a figure of stooped shoulders mourned inaudibly. It was Sue. I approached her and saw that she was cutting desperately into the skin of a dull red apple with a razor-blade. Her grin fairly jumped off her face. Then her lips compressed and her frown was as dismal as a trench.
“Does the breeze have a kind voice?” she asked.
She kept slicing through the flesh of the apple but there was nothing inside and soon she was empty-handed, pouting, counting something in the air, and then she was pointing at my throat with a look of horror.
Liquid was spilling across my neck towards the back of my head. I blotted the spot, trying to make it ebb, but the warmth was relentless.
Then something happened.
I woke panicked. The ceiling was drifting away into a recklessly speeding fan that I could not follow. I tried to keep my eyes fixed on a single rotor but lost it in the distant whirring motion.
Sue Longtree was straddling me; her eyes were shut tight, mascara and tears staining her cheeks. I felt the razor digging into my neck, gliding effortlessly towards my adam’s apple. I was in shock, more from the disturbingly tranquil expression on her face than the fact that she was cutting my throat open. A rush of hot blood streamed around me, wetting the sheets. She was parting me very slowly and carefully. I shifted but she wouldn’t budge, then I tried pushing her away, but her dead weight was immovable.
I had her wrist and slapped her with my free hand, and then I slapped her harder. Weakness was slopping all over me like a newly bathed animal, subduing me totally. I thrashed and I yelled and stammered. Still she slept and used the razor-blade. Soon I was only gagging and sputtering epithets.
Dying is just the fear of dying. I savored and chewed my breath as though it were poisoned oatmeal.
The final image that would throw me into the Questionable would be a somnambulist woman carving her initials in my neck and the ceiling fan like a cryptic halo above her red-hair.
Finally I socked her so densely in the side of the head that my knuckles or her cheekbone cracked, and she toppled off the bed with a flicker of green eyes, giving me another valedictory swipe of the blade as she was pushed off and landed on the floor with a thud and a little shriek that was uttered in a voice that didn’t belong to her.
I rolled onto my stomach, stanching the wound with the pillow. Things once clear in the room were becoming disconcertingly imprecise. The clock was a tiny explosion of numerals, the furniture just billowing wooden figures, the whole room a rotating womb with no solution. Trying to stand I fell into the nightstand, stuttered a few mumbled phrases, and was out well before the hardwood floor caught me.
While I napped in the comfy embrace of dying Sue had tied one of her husband’s monogrammed handkerchief’s around my cut neck. The bleeding had temporarily stemmed, leaving behind a lacerating pain that killed any urge to wonder very lucidly. Fifty-one percent of that pain was from rage. With her unwanted help I staggered into the bathroom, bowed my head into the spotless sink, and washed my face with miserably cold water.
“Go away,” I told her when she put a hand on my shoulder, “This is not a good time,” and she went away. In the mirror I watched her getting back into her bathrobe, and her body was all lust for a second, and then it wasn’t anything.
Carefully, I unwrapped the tourniquet so that the clinging fabric didn’t jerk my skin off. I soaked the grinning gash with a cupped hand. The agonizing tang of water lasted awhile. I gripped the faucet with my other hand to steady myself. I stood at the sink for five minutes, my mind amok, trembling, unable to think well.
She came into the mirror in her bathrobe looking worse than I did, her left cheek a wheel of greenish brown, top lip cracked and bloated. Red strands of hair stuck to the glib sweat on her brow.
“You could have at least used shaving cream,” I said. She was crying now and trying to hold back the tears skittishly.
“I’m sorry, Harry,” she said, sliding two arms around me. I slipped out of her reach and into the bedroom, scrutinizing her disconsolate reflection from a freakish angle and pretended that I wasn’t going to pass out from the pain, from perpetual lack of sleep.
“I’m sorry for how you must be feeling right now,” I said. Neither of us were dazzled by my clever parlance.
She was all pinched up, scowling like a dog. I hunched forward on a footstool, gathered my shoes on. I tied the laces as though I were focused on some algebraic problem that had been baffling men for centuries.
“I was sleeping when I did it,” she breathed. “I couldn’t know what I was doing. Now you know why I hired you.”
I got my shoes laced and realized that they were the only clothes I’d put on. My ratty suit and trousers were scattered in the sheets and I quickly untangled them and dressed brusquely.
“That’s no excuse,” I said. “And I only half believe you. I knew you were a bitch. I didn’t know why. I still don’t know why.”
“I can’t help it,” she said. “I had a dream that I was doing it and I awoke and I was doing it.”
“I’m through,” I said, zipping my pants. “With you, I mean.”
“Keep the money.”
“I wasn’t considering not keeping the money. But I’m not quitting yet. This scenario is going to be solved whether you like it or not.”
“There isn’t any solution,” she said. “It’s gone on long enough.”
“What’s that mean?” I grabbed her roughly by the arm and shook her. She wrenched free and sat on the bed, head bowed, hands splayed on her knees.
“I don’t mean anything,” she said. “I’ve never meant anything.”
“What’s gone on long enough?” I asked.
“You’re not making any sense, Ms. Longtree.”
Sue burst into a crying fit that lasted a few seconds. It was strange not to feel remorse or a pang of sympathy for the woman, but I felt neither. Not even curiosity.
“So now you know about yourself,” I said. “You like to murder people in their sleep after sex. Like the rest of the Longtrees, apparently.” I paused and gave her my worst scowl. Her sobs were coming in short huffs. “So you know. So now what?”
Sue raised her head, searching my face for some kind of reassurance. She found none.
Her crying grew soft, but persistent, like she’d been saving a lifetime’s worth of stifled reactions for the right moment and just realized it wasn’t the right moment but couldn’t shove it all back in. With her knees pulled up to her chest on the disheveled bed Sue suddenly looked tiny and far away. Perhaps I should have forgiven her, consoled her, told her untruths about how screwed up she was, at bottom a kind woman with nowhere to shove her kindness. Something, however, about how afraid she looked made me even more merciless.
“You can always tell,” I said, “whether you’re crying for someone else or for herself because a woman always cries for herself.”
My brain was clumsy and it took me two minutes to button my shirt.
“I haven’t been really sad in a long time,” she said.
“I believe you. You’re making advances.”
She clutched the neckline of her bathrobe together, eyes just a muted, watery green, mouth weak and closed. She hadn’t died her hair in days, and for the first time I spotted brown roots thrusting at the red. The cute nightlight lay submerged in its own coy glow, knocked off the table by our grim choreography.
Sue was sobbing my name.
“Harry, I have to tell you something.”
“I don’t want you to tell me anything because nothing you say is worth listening to and I’ve heard it anyway.”
I knotted my tie, forgetting the condition of my neck, and a searing stab of pain shot to my chin, reinvigorating my indignation.
On a shelf in the bedroom there was a row of colorful books, and on a few of the bindings was the big name of Dominic Early in goofy font.
“Who the hell is this goddamn Early guy?” I shouted at her.
She looked up, and when she did, I couldn’t look at her. Without difficulty I opened the door. For a second I glanced at her in the middle of the bedroom, lost in her own mind, bruised, childish, shaking. The hallway was demure, wider than I recalled, splattered with calm hues of blues and whites, of figures and round shapes and a tinsel ceiling. I eased the door closed soundlessly.
I waited for her to follow me out so that I could leave her again. Soon the sobbing stopped and another door clicked shut.
There was a drawing of the orchard, this one unframed, stuck to the wall with two strategic pushpins. It was sloped to the left. I felt the need to straighten it. A radio somewhere was playing opera. Cherubini, I thought. I’d never liked Cherubini much, never less so than now.
I hastened out like a nihilist at a village choir practice. Torrents of rain slapped the pavement, slapped my aching body, the pain radiating down from the smile in my neck as I ambled across the lawn, avoided the spitting sprinkler that sounded as though it were wishing me a loony farewell.
I stumbled through the vacant neighborhoods of the dusky morning, oblivious to the dimwitted paper boy in green hauling a sack of early editions over his shoulder, the delivery trucks, past the overnight factory men pulling dismally into driveways to sleep badly until the next shift, the knocked-down lawn ornaments and the weeping willows, the crows nibbling at overflowing garbage bins. Wives closed mailboxes with pops and sorted through letters and coupons. Bending into someone’s garden I plucked a larkspur and studded it into my breast pocket.
The handkerchief was coming undone and I had to continuously keep from handling it as a shot of mad torment shook me. I knocked into brick walls and telephone poles, wanting to vomit like I had never wanted anything else in my life.
I don’t know why in hindsight, but I was making for the Bergen residence. Other than not dying, the money in my freezer was the only claim I had, and Carol Bergen seemed the best person to feel sorry for myself with. I no longer had any idea what I was doing. What’s more, a mean notion hit me over and over — I hadn’t known what I’d been doing for quite a while.
My aspirations dwindling like a pack of geese at a skeet shoot, the great big clumsy solution struck me. A second later the enlightenment was lost in my creaking thoughts, and I couldn’t be sure what I had grasped.
At the Bergen place the little kid, Dot, met me on the porch. She was a fragile, brown-haired child eating apple sauce out of a blue plastic bowl with her hands. Her eyes were deeper and grayer than a child’s should have been. I was swaying on the top step. The street was too wet and too glistening and all of a sudden too hot to stand in.
The kid screamed. I patted my throat. The handkerchief was lying on my shoe, the rain rinsing it clean. Dot ran behind the screen door, small and dark against the interior of the house. Carol was shouting for her from the backyard.
“It’s OK,” I said to the kid. “Jome is OK. Just give him a minute.”
While I was stooping for the handkerchief, I toppled onto my head and heard, briefly, five million pairs of heels marching toward me. The sidewalk was moist and agreeable and I could have lain there for days. Hands prodded me, voices yelled, and all I could think of was my tailor’s extraordinary incompetence and how upset I was that the suit wasn’t finished yet.
I was floating in an airless vacuum and then I was tumbling back to earth, but maybe I didn’t want to be tumbling back to earth. I might have screamed out, or sobbed and spasmed, but I knew it was a delusion and I knew it was fleeting. It was that static elsewhere I recalled from my alcohol-induced fever days, a particular kind of location that doesn’t have any geographical location or depth. I just didn’t know how to get rid of it until something cold was splashing into my eyes.
Carol Bergen was daubing my head in gentle circles with a wet washcloth. Her brown eyes were concentrated and nurturing.
I reached for my neck, but she swatted my hand away. Carol handed me a bottle of whiskey that was nestled into the sofa-cushions between us and I took a long cool sip and let the liquor ooze onto my lap. She grabbed the bottle away.
“Don’t touch it,” she said. “I just wrapped it. It isn’t so bad, but you’ll have a pretty fever for a while, and you might think your head is going to fall off. But that’s probably a familiar sensation.”
Carol’s free hand was glued to a glass of bourbon floated with ice.
“I hate to mention it right now,” she said, “but I told you about her.”
“You didn’t tell me everything.”
“I didn’t know everything.”
She folded the compress in halves and continued to dampen my skin.
“Let me have some more of that bottle?” I said.
“Be quiet and don’t move,” she said.
Dot came into the living room trailing an anemic doll. She sat down cross-legged next to her mother on the floor. The kid stared at me uncomprehendingly, exactly the same way I would have looked at me if I were a child.
“Did Ben smoke?” I asked. The words echoed around in my head as though emitting from a sound-proof chamber, like I might have been communicating in rebuses.
“Never,” she said.
I closed my eyes and grinned inwardly, but the grin slipped onto my lips and the tightening brought a wave of discomfort.
“There’s something,” Carol said.
“It isn’t anything.” I took the bottle from its perch, brushed it lovingly on my cheek to soothe the heat emanating from my wound. Then I drowned the booze and handed the bottle back.
“I thought you didn’t drink,” she said.
“I don’t unless there’s some occasion.”
“This is no occasion.”
“I didn’t say it had to be a good occasion.”
“You’re funny, Mr. Jome.”
“I’m a few good laughs.”
I sat up. The soreness howled at me, then diminished somewhat. I couldn’t move my head side to side; every swallow was like being crucified on bamboo. The room hadn’t transformed. Still no pictures. Except for the orchard drawings.
“Where did all these awful things come from?” I asked, gazing at the drawing. “They’re all over town, for chrissakes.”
“Ben did them,” Carol said. “When he was at the orchard.
“Why?” I asked.
“Why?” she asked back.
Mrs. Bergen shuffled off to the kitchen with the bottle. The kid was leaning forward and searching my face for some token of understanding, then quickly giving up. For such youth, she had a tired gaze inherited from her mother and a worn expression that had not evaporated from her face since I got there.
“So, it’s not so bad after all?” I asked the kid.
She shook her head shyly, No.
Loaded with two glasses Carol handed me one solemnly. When she instructed Dot to leave the room the child did so obediently.
“I thought some glasses would make us more glamorous,” she said.
I drank loudly, slurping and choking down the booze and the booze was gentle and good.
“Why don’t you fetch the police?” she said in a concerto of ice-chewing. She was beside me on the couch, legs twisted under her.
“The police are too predisposed toward me at the moment.”
She blinked, lowered a glance into her drink and lapped it back. I skipped the part about the two dead investigators.
“Besides,” I said. “What are the police going to do when I tell them what happened? A crazy girl tries to murder me in her sleep.”
Carol’s eyes burned. “She was with you like that?” she asked.
I ignored her. “There’s nothing that can be done. But I was paid and I intend to see it through.”
“She’s dangerous and you’re lucky. There were many times…”
“Many times what?”
“She’s just dangerous.”
“She likes to think she is.”
“She hated Ben. She hates me.”
Carol shrugged and took the drink out of my hand and drank it. “Some people just hate. I can’t remember if I hated her first or not. It doesn’t have to make any sense.”
We shared a drink, watching the day tumble in through the window like old substantial friends who have not had a conversation in weeks. Between lovers silence can be an eloquent description of contentment; but between everyone else it’s usually just awkward. I was getting to enjoy Carol’s company and I didn’t want to enjoy it. I wanted to leave and I also didn’t want to leave.
The creases in Carol’s tight expression cracked apart as her mind wandered. She shivered at something. The quiet was munching on the both of us. I set the glass on the coffee table.
“You’re good,” she finally said, putting a hand on my arm.
“I’m not too good,” I said.
“I think you’re better than most.”
“That’s because most are awful.”
“It was a compliment.” The liquor was starting to depress her.
“Why did you ask about that smoking thing?” she said.
“Nothing much,” I said. “Just something.”
“What kind of something?”
“The kind that might be nothing.”
Suddenly Dot trudged back into the room hugging a blanket. Now I could see that she was a severely nervous kid who would grow up to be a severely nervous woman. Big round eyes of chalky blue. Experts whose job it is to reveal the sorrow of everything say that the older a person gets the more squinted their eyes become. Because the flesh around them expands, they say. The person is slowly shutting the world out of their world. And Dot was almost at that fine line when you stop wondering how birds can remain in a perfect V and you start wondering why your husband doesn’t watch you anymore when you’re removing your stockings or where your next paycheck is going to come from.
I looked at Dot and had miserable thoughts.
Quietly, Carol called her over and plunked her down in her lap. Dot didn’t move or say anything. One of Carol’s heels slipped off, displaying a sloppily painted set of pink toenails, feet excessively dainty. And I don’t know why, but I was suddenly clear.
“When was it that Ben died?” I asked her, enunciating each word.
She considered while making a face that seemed to question my intelligence.
“Two years ago,” she said.
I stood quickly.
“Why didn’t you tell me that?”
“Tell you what?”
“What you just told me.”
“You didn’t ask. Why would I think you didn’t know that?”
The phone’s ringing pounced in my ears and I believed for a second that it was my own anger.
“I got to go anyway,” I said.
“Where?” she asked.
“Up to the orchard,” I said. “I’m tired of this but if I don’t do something I won’t be able to do anything. Whatever it is, it’s there.”
It was trite and meaningless, but now that I knew why it was so trite and so meaningless it was neither and I couldn’t really specify what it was, except to say that I was exhausted and that my neck was sore.
Cold wind numbed the gash. The street everywhere was coming reluctantly into summer, albeit with the torrential rain diligently constant. Directly ahead of me a lone, brown-uniformed garbage collector hurled a bag into the jaws of a leisurely idling truck. I resumed walking and a man in denim stepped from behind the truck and walked on the other side of the street about 20 yards behind me. And from around the corner Cowper appeared and smiled at me as I passed by him.
TO BE CONTINUED…
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10.
In this latest installment of Peck’s serial noir, our private eye hero Harry Jome wakes after a night of debauchery with his client, Sue Longtree, only to continue the picaresque and grotesque mystery his latest case has become. Get caught up on the last installment here, or:
Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).
The engine was off, and when I tried to turn it over there was only a click like you might hear in your jaw. It was 6:30 when I poured myself out of the car. Pressed under the wipers, two unassertive parking tickets flapped. Sue was gone and the headache throttling my temples caused the rain-slick street to spin vertiginously.
It had been my first drinks in 20 years, and now it was another scarcely tenable day.
I left the car where it was and walked around a minute on the sidewalk to regain my legs. Then I crumpled down near a hydrant and deposited last night’s overpriced dinner and the drinks along with the meal.
I disliked Sue for making me dislike myself so much. She’d abandoned me and I couldn’t make out why. I was on 15th Street, a couple of buildings up from the bus station. As far as I knew it was Tuesday. Rubbing my face I was straightaway enraged.
A squat man in a derby paused to squint at me disapprovingly, as though he’d just finished sweeping the entire city and was now forced to do it all over again because of me.
“Really?” the man asked.
I loped down to the corner of 8th and 9th. Probably I should have checked that Sue had returned safely to her house, but instead I compelled myself painfully to my office in an ugly shuffle. The air outside was ruined by stifling garbage, and the burning vomit in my nostrils stank of cumin and asparagus. I was a sick, troubled hubris not good enough to drop dead on a crapshoot’s veranda. Even my metaphors were deteriorating.
When I arrived at the Santos Building I was wearing a coat of rain on my back.
Before entering my office I heard two pairs of hands rummaging through files and drawers. Peeling the door back, I could see Parker and Porter bent in fat, dumb postures of searching. They didn’t notice me right away. Both of them were in bright seersucker outfits with not enough starch in the collars, their hats aligned on my desk and they were passing around a cigarette as they labored. Porter looked to have acquired a tan recently.
Parker turned his big head and saw me glaring at him.
“He’s right here,” Parker said to Porter, snapping his fingers.
Porter’s jowls were glistening and he puffed the cigarette, handed it to his partner and breathed out the smoke with a question. “Where is it?” he asked.
“It’s somewheres in here,” Parker said, giving the cigarette back.
Watching them fumble sent a nostalgic twinge through my body over the death of vaudeville. “You two are real bit players,” I said. “So what’s the comedy?”
“Ain’t no comedy, Jome,” Porter said.
Parker quipped, “More along the lines of a drama.”
“Hi, Harry,” Parker said. He pointed to Porter with a giant thumb. “Porter, you remember Harry Jome. I was telling you about him.”
“Oh yeah,” Porter said. “You were saying he’s nothing much.”
“Good to see you fellows,” I said. I took off my coat and draped it on the back of the chair. I was absent my pistol and there was nothing to be done save try to reason with these funny baboons. But I wasn’t in the mood to reason with anyone. My head was splitting. All I wanted was to lie on the floor and groan.
“We were just making sure,” Parker said. “That we hadn’t forgotten anything.”
“And what is your hypothesis?” I was edging toward the filing cabinets.
“That we hadn’t missed anything,” Porter said.
Parker and Porter were standing close together, their wide bodies nearly wall-to-wall. Porter’s suit was missing every single button and he’d tried to offset this by keeping the flaps of his suit-coat back with his elbows.
“It’s getting more cloudy,” Porter said, glancing out the window. “And I’m going to get dark in a minute.”
I laughed and Parker laughed too. “So what am I laughing at and what am I looking for?” Parker asked.
I shrugged. “Could be anything.”
“OK,” Porter said. “So what do you think we’re looking for, because we are looking for something or else we wouldn’t be here.” The light caught his face and there was a furrowed dimple in the center of his chin. “Would we?” He continued, “Fact is I don’t want to get any darker than I have to.”
“Or the situation, too,” Parker added.
“What is the situation?” I asked.
In tandem they were coming out from either side of the desk like two lunatics just signed out. Parker’s big hand looked as though it were eating the gun it held.
“See?” he said. “Now I have a gun. And this gun is your gun. It was in the drawer.”
“I know,” I said.
“Whatever the situation is, a gun changes it,” Porter said.
“You still haven’t told me what the situation is? What’re you looking for?” I asked.
Porter rested his ass on the desk, tilting it forward. Then he straightened up as though his mother told him not ever to sit on furniture.
“The situation,” Parker said, scratching his neck with the barrel of the gun, “is what you’re going to tell us it is.”
“You working for Sue Longtree?” I asked.
“Why would we be working for her?” Porter said. I stared at his dimple until it formed into a second dimple and this one winked at me.
“Because she’s a woman and a woman likes to complicate her own intentions,” I said.
Parker came in close to me and jabbed me on the shoulder with the metal. I grabbed at the bruise and swayed.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” I said. “I was out drinking last night and I’m feeling pretty lousy today.”
“I thought you like problems,” Porter said, staring at Parker.
“I like problems when they’re not my problems.”
“Open the window,” Parker said. “It’s getting complex in here.”
Porter heaved the window up. Dainty clods of rain tiptoed onto the sill. Porter stayed by the window to dry his sweat and blink in the wind.
“This is no Ritz-Carlton,” Porter said.
“What’s so great about the Ritz-Carlton?” I asked.
“You ever stayed at one?”
“Then how would you know?”
“We just need some air for thinking,” Parker said. “You going to tell us what we’re looking for?”
“Hopefully a couple new suits,” I said. Parker slammed me in the shoulder again and the pain swelled. Compared to the hangover, it was almost an intercession.
“It doesn’t look good, does it?” he asked.
“No,” his partner said. “It doesn’t look good for someone in particular.”
Parker took a few steps back and forth and planted himself once again in front of me.
“You’re doing something with the female Longtree.” He raised the gun to his cheek and scratched a red, splotchy razor-burn. “Our client is inquisitive about that.”
A stealthy breeze took some of my papers out the window and shuffled more that were on the desk.
“Maybe,” I said. “Would you mind shutting the window? I’d like to keep my office in here.”
The two men glanced at one another, not knowing how to proceed. Tension was so heavy you could have cut it with a tablecloth.
“Maybe,” Porter said. “But probably definitely.”
“Why have you scooped out Ben Bergen?” Parker asked.
“He killed himself in a motel room upstate.”
“What he’s asking is why you’re looking at it, if I’m not mistaken,” Porter said. He came away from the window and moisture was still running down his face.
“Because he killed himself in a motel room upstate.”
Parker itched his face again with the muzzle.
One swift thrust and my toe caught him in the shin. His left foot rolled over on the marble I’d dropped a few days beforehand and he flailed like a goon, clutching at the air. The gun startled his finger and the blast took away a part of the right side of his head. His gaze stayed intact and dumb. Porter grappled with slippery hands past the desk, tripped over his partner’s toe and lunged for the open door.
“Wait a minute,” Parker said crisply, stunned and numb and dying. He toppled over backward and landed with an explosive thud similar to the gun’s yell. I could hear Porter frantically descending the staircase, followed by a pitiful moan and a crash below. And then there was just the breathless calm of a man deciding what the hell he should do. Murmurs wafted chorally throughout the building.
I poked through Parker’s second-hand wardrobe, extracted his billfold to find the miscellany of a pretty stultifying guy in a struggle with mid-life. Creased dollar bills. Photos of nieces and nephews. A playing card with a nude woman and the phrase “Everybody Ends Up in St. Louis” on it. In one pocket there was a penknife and a tiny flashlight, and the other held a scrap of expensive stationary with the words Find It. Throughout the excavation I did my best not to look at Parker’s face. The room was splattered with what I didn’t want to notice.
Digging into his breast pocket I unearthed a cheap memo book, clamped with a rubber band. The first entry in his adolescent shorthand was just a name and an address: Richard Longtree, Melancthon Hotel, 1st Street, Room 304.
Underneath that: Evidence for Divorce Proceedings Detailing the Extra-Marital Affairs of Susan Longtree.
A few pages later I came to a transcription of my wayward discussion with Sue at the diner.
I flipped to the last bunch of text: Going to confront HJ for information. Richard is getting impatient with the case. Will terminate contract if nothing in three days. I ripped all the pages out of the notebook that referenced me and littered the remnants out the window. I left the long passages containing laundry lists and grocery reminders. Stuffing the data back into his pocket my finger fell through the hole of a wedding ring. I shook it off. Stains from underneath Parker spread in all directions, like a flower or like what it was. I should have called somebody, but since I’d never had a dead guy in my office before, I wasn’t too sure what the protocol was supposed to be. I did know, however, that if I was almost sure not to have gotten any sleep before, it was a granite certainty that I would not be sleeping now.
A jumbled scent of disgusting sweetness filled the room.
I didn’t know what to do so I didn’t do anything but stare at the blood and at Parker’s buffoonish suit and the recently colored wall-paper. Rain was soaking my back and I let it. Even indoors I couldn’t get away from the rain.
This was all Sue Longtree.
It was times like these I wished I’d taken up ballroom dancing and stuck to it.
A half-hour later the detective came in with two lock-stepped uniforms that were stuffed with young brutal men, and a crooked trilby set squarely on his sloping forehead. His eyes and movements were shy or calculating, and a fine buzz cut gave his gray hair a spectral quality when he removed the hat, as though he were going to mutate into a black and white image of himself at any second. I gauged him at about 50 or a little older. Hand tailored, his gray suit was tight-fitting and he had a green stem in the breast pocket without a flower attached. A gray mustache was on his lip, one tapered end longer than the other.
He ordered the officers to stay on the other side of the door, then he prodded Parker’s head with a pencil. The detective didn’t acknowledged me as he poked around the room.
He sniffed at the barrel of the pistol, stuffed the pistol in his pocket.
“That’s my property,” I said. The detective didn’t answer but he did shake his head imperceptibly, no.
“Did you touch anything?” he asked, and his words came out in a monotonous stream that had a bit of tremulous excitement in it. The kind of voice you’d hear broadcasting financial updates.
I was exhausted and hungover. Now would be an unparalleled time to say something stupid and I did my best. “Just my hands.”
“Jome, I’m Leslie Cowper — lieutenant right now — and I hate my job, so if you make it difficult for me I’m going to make me difficult for you. Go ahead and sit down.”
“I’m already sitting.”
“Why don’t you close that window?” Cowper said.
I got up and closed the window and returned to my chair.
For a while longer Cowper prodded Parker’s head.
“You got a chair?” he asked.
“No. There’s only one and you told me to sit down and I’m sitting down.”
Cowper thrust his face into the hallway and called for one of his boys to bring in a chair and one of his boys brought in a chair. He put his hat back on when he eased himself into the seat across from me, reposed like he didn’t care. White socks were revealed as he crossed his legs. His round jawline pumped up and down.
“So,” he said. “So explain this to me.”
He had a pencil behind his right ear and no notepad.
“Well,” I started, and the throbbing in my head began, not quite as insistently. “The guy on the floor is Parker — not sure about the first name but you’re a cop for some reason — and this Parker guy was scratching the side of his head with the gun when it went off and that’s the cause of his malaise.”
“Guy doesn’t usually itch himself with a bullet.”
“I’ll agree with you there.”
“What was he doing here?” Cowper asked. He removed the pencil and let it frolic across his knuckles, keeping his eyes on it.
“Just itching,” I said.
“That your gun in his hand?”
“I think so, judging by the initials.”
“Who the hell keeps their initials on a gun? Are you a child or something?”
“I was kidding.”
“Don’t.” Cowper strained forward. “Any decent idea how your gun ended up in his hand and your bullet in his head?”
“If I recall correctly, he picked it up before I got here.”
“When did you get here?”
“About 40 minutes ago.”
“How long had they been here?”
“Can’t say. Maybe fifteen minutes before that.”
Cowper steadied his gaze into mine, still playing with his pencil.
“I think you’re being difficult,” he said.
“What you’ve said doesn’t sound like a good defense at all.”
“Am I defending myself?”
“I don’t know. I just got here.”
Suddenly he pointed the eraser tip at me. “If I were you,” he said. “I’d hire somebody better equipped to handle your legal business, and while I’m on the topic, what is your business?”
“And if I were you I’d be sitting obliviously in that chair wondering why this appears so obvious when it is, actually, pretty obvious.”
“Private dick, I guess. Not too many of them around. You got a license, Jome? From the county? To practice what you’re doing?”
“I’m not practicing; I’m actually doing it.”
“No license, huh?” Cowper grimaced emphatically. “That’s too bad.”
“I have a driver’s license,” I said.
“Don’t use it until this is all cleared up, and if you do use it, use it real well.”
I put my hands behind my head. Cowper had hardness in brown, doughy eyes that were just a little terrifying. He pulled a bent cigarette from behind the ear without the pencil and stuck it in his mouth without lighting it.
“I believe you, Jome,” he said, the cigarette tottering. “Don’t ask me why.”
“Because I said so and I tend to like people who are in a lot of steam. I don’t like anything self-apparent because what looks that way typically isn’t.”
He tried blanking out a tar stain on his fingernail with the worn eraser. He got bored and studied the blood-patterned carpet, then trained his attention on Parker.
“What do you think?” he asked Parker. As Cowper stood he tossed the pencil into the wastepaper basket in the corner. “This have something to do with a case?” he asked, taking the pathetic cigarette and sticking it in back of his ear again.
“I couldn’t really say.”
“Something about a Longtree?”
I flung my hands up.
“If I knew anything,” I said. “I wouldn’t be doing this.”
“Ever hear the name Dean Bruckner?” he asked.
“Not even once.”
“Since I can’t tell when you’re lying or not, I’ll just be an idealist and assume you never are. Bruckner called this minor massacre in from a pay-phone next door. He wouldn’t say what he was doing hanging around here, but he’s a private dick like you. Are you working with him?”
“I don’t know this fellow but I’m sure he’s good.”
Cowper nodded and he kept nodding. “He is good. Better than you, I bet.” His sweet, boyish face was sweating and placid, like somebody who’s just found what sex is for.
Cowper was at the door, his shoes making squishing sounds from the rain caught in the soles.
“Oh,” he said over his shoulder. “There’s another dead fellow down in the front hall. Seems you shouldn’t jump down stairs thirty at a time.”
“His name is Porter,” I said.
“Why do you suppose he jumped down all those stairs? You think he was pushed?”
“Maybe he was in a hurry.”
Cowper got up, tugged the brim of his trilby. “See you again soon,” he said. Leaving, he took hold of the chair and brought it out with him. His outline was in the glass door as he motioned to someone and then it wasn’t and the elevator was groaning with too many bitter men.
I was doing nothing but thinking of Sue Longtree and her pretentious shit, Richard, the crumb who’d hired the guys I’d now done away with. It was all too bad. Not to mention the rain and the corpse on the floor who’d fulfilled nothing more insidious than a mindless routine divorce job.
“If only you understood,” I said to Parker, “just how much of this I don’t understand.”
The meat grinder drove up outside and two burly asocial types stamped into my office bearing a gurney between them. One of the kids was wearing a sailor hat, tattoos running up and down his arms. They zipped up the obese body and heaved it in the gurney; the outlines of the former Parker bulged as his remains were hurried away. The boys lingered a moment foreseeing a tip, and I ignored them conclusively.
The loneliness was harsher than a desert in winter. Nothing especially looked promising except that the two dicks were off my back, which was a relief. Now I had to contend with the Longtrees, and that was not even in the proximity of a paradise.
Sue didn’t answer when I called. I was stuck and rather dizzy. This would have been a perfect moment to contact my attorney, if I had one. Maybe even a prostitute or an acupuncturist. Some kind of small dog to keep me company in the enveloping folds of a stiff hardship.
The stain on the carpet wasn’t going anywhere. I reached the elevator starving, afraid that food would disrupt me completely. My stomach fell as the elevator clanked down. Watching the thin floor leisurely ascend I was reminded of the two private eyes who wouldn’t be molesting elevators anymore.
My two immediate options for the day were to either whine about it or buy some mineral water at the store around the corner.
The first evidence I could see of him on the ground floor was his tennis shoes. Then corduroy pants and a blue sweater. At last his face was there, a gray goatee and matching short hair.
“Jome?” he asked before I could pry apart the grate.
“Some other time,” I said.
“I’m on a job for somebody and I need to talk to you about somebody.” He spoke fast and his shirtsleeves were too short and rode the tops of the wristwatches he had on both wrists.
“A guy by the name of Wald. My client is interested in him about something important. And maybe about you, too, as you’ve become rather important as well. OK? So where does that stand us? Wald has been on me and I’m a little less than positive that it has something to do with you.”
“Who’s your client?”
“You know I can’t tell you that, but I know that you know what I’m talking about.”
“You know a lot.”
“I know what I need to know. I know I need to have this wrapped up fast. In case you’re wondering, my name is Sid Lewishom.”
“I wasn’t wondering.”
“My name is still Sid Lewishom.”
“And I still wasn’t wondering.”
I started past him, but he kept sidestepping in the way.
“I’m busy,” I said.
“I am too. It’s a private matter. And this other guy has been stuck on me and I don’t like it and I thought maybe–”
“Yeah,” I interrupted. “You thought maybe.”
“I thought maybe it might have to do with a few other people.”
“I don’t know anything about a few other people.”
“No one does. It could benefit the both of us is what I see. Join up and settle this puzzle.”
“Now you’re being interesting. But you’re still not being too interesting.”
“I’ll buy you a drink and you’ll see how interesting I can be.”
“Another night you can buy me a drink. I’m not in the mood to see how interesting anybody is.”
“Lookit,” he yelled.
“No,” I said. He didn’t follow me into the street, and when I came out of the store with a bottle of mineral water he wasn’t in sight.
I went around to Cramm’s for a quick visit. The tailor was sitting on the front stoop of the building that housed his shop, roofed from the rain by his awning. He was leafing through a sewing machine manual when I came up to him and knocked the book onto his shoes.
“Where’s the suit?” I snapped.
“I’m working on it,” Cramm said. He retrieved the manual and flipped to find his page.
“Right now you are?”
“Well, I’m thinking about working on it,” he said.
“It doesn’t look like you’re working on anything.”
I kicked Cramm’s wingtip with my own wingtip. “Cramm,” I said. “This has been a bad week for me and that suit would come in handy about now.” His sunken eyes took nearly 30 seconds to rise and meet mine. “I’m going to come back in a day or two and that goddamned suit had better be stitched together by then.”
Cramm was nonplussed and closed his sewing book.
“I have nine pairs of pants that the Elks Club want hand-done for a conference they’re having this week. So it’s kind of a position to be in.”
“You can deal with the Elks Club or you can deal with me.” I scoffed and turned away. “I’ll see you soon, Cramm. If not, then before that. I hope that you get the point of me really wanting that suit.”
“I get that feeling,” Cramm said. “I get that feeling all over me.”
I had to see Sue. Bitterness and frustration welled in me, conflated by the rain and building into a nasty rage. Added to that, I didn’t have my umbrella.
I walked the drenched streets for the remainder of daylight, observing the sky shift from gray to black to a color that was neither and both. Imagining what I would say to Sue Longtree and how I would quit her.
On 3rd Street the branches of indistinguishable trees fluttered in the windswept odium of befouling rain. The headlines of a gusting newspaper bellowed that the trashmen’s union hadn’t yet reached a compromise on their strike.
I wasn’t very curious about this Lewishom fellow but I was about Perle and how he was involved — and why. I assumed that since the guy had only shown up after my visit to Perle, the big insurance man had only brought him in since my visit. But what did Perle and his expensive hair have to do with it? Or Wald? For that matter, Sue Longtree herself, the tentacled nexus from which all else was being somehow jockeyed?
There were too many people in this town, and they were all aiming at me. The cast was bloating, and not a single sympathetic role in the whole lousy production.
I rang the bell at Sue’s. The ivied walls looked sad, and the place had the extended quiet of being uninhabited. Twice I rang the bell and watched the wet leaves swirl around my ankles on the dry porch.
A boy rode by on a bicycle, colorful cards in the spokes clipping peacefully, constantly in the act of wiping the water from his eyeglasses.
An airplane cut noiselessly through low clouds, and soon its twin engine was audible in the darkening veil of clouds.
I was thinking of the Longtree family, a domestic unit of murder and suicide that would have compared quite well to Leopold and Loeb on any day. Sue Longtree was nothing but the closest representation of how secluded we really are in the defiant madness lying uncontrolled just behind what we think we are or what we want others to think we are.
And more importantly, why was I standing here wasting time when I could have been somewhere else wasting time?
I was feeling worse than my conception of awful.
I turned and was heading down the stairs when a magnified cigarette lighter sputtered in a car window across the narrow street. It was a white Ford two-seater in extreme dilapidation. Behind the fogged driver’s side window a man with a long head was looking at me. It wasn’t Wald or Lewishom, but that’s as far as I got on his identification before the door behind me clicked.
“Hi,” Sue said to my back..
At once I ascended the stairs and slapped her terribly on the cheek, the slap ringing and torching my hand. Sue touched the blushing spot.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she said, her eyes watering.
“I had to do something, didn’t I? It was the first thing that came to mind. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Partly clothed in a light blue bathrobe and unnecessary heels, Sue’s hair was done up in a pink towel, a stray eyelash on her cheek.
“You look like you’ve been up for weeks designing a submarine,” she said, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
“Who’s the guy in the Ford?” I asked. “Who the hell is Wald? Why’s this Lewishom trying to corner me? You know what I’ve been doing this morning?”
“Come inside and apologize,” she said. She led me inside and latched the door behind us. “Why don’t you take off your jacket and act like a person for a minute?”
“It’s hard for me to do that around you. I asked a second ago if you know what I’ve been doing this morning.”
“You don’t seem like you can do much around me,” she said. “And I’m not causing any of these problems.”
I wanted to slap her again.
“How about Dean Bruckner?” I shouted out. “Or Cowper, or Perle? You know the game.” I must have resembled a lunatic, because Sue’s eyes widened. “Tell me.”
“No,” she said.
Before I could do the opposite of protest, she was practically inside my mouth, gnawing on my lower lip and drawing the blood out, pressing herself against me like a horny leech. Sue’s body smelled of cocoa butter and sweet shampoo.
I loosened the knot on her robe and used my hands, clumsy on her lower back, spine, hips. It had been a while and I was hungry and I tried having her entire body at once.
“You’re so sad,” she breathed.
“I’m not sad,” I said into her mouth. “How could I be sad?”
Her eyes were misty and unfocused, as though she were in two places at once and couldn’t figure out how to reassemble.
The robe sank around her feet and onto my shoes. I was being dragged up the ornate staircase toward the darkened hallway, an amateur in the business, my hands behaving as though they’d never touched anything soft before. I gently rubbed at the prickly stubble between her legs and we lost our balance and had to grab at the oak balustrade. I shoved my index finger inside her and she twitched, putting one rigid hand onto my pants to unbuckle my belt while the other rubbed at my face brutally, simultaneously pushing me back and drawing me in.
We zigzagged into the hall, leaving extraneous clothes behind, knocking into a table, slamming into an oil-painting of a woman sunbathing. A flash of gaping doorways, a bathroom cupboard, a statue on a glass pedestal, a full-length mirror, rummaging into each other’s bodies like imbeciles at a bank run.
“Let me make you less sad,” she whispered. “You’re so sad it hurts.”
“You’re a sad man and I’m a sad woman.”
The chenille drapes weren’t drawn in the bedroom and the view was of the tops of spruce trees and the sparkling lights of the city’s tallest buildings washed in the manic rain. It was a plain room with a four-poster bed, an unlit vanity set with a black typewriter and a page wavering. We stumbled over a footstool, plopped onto a love-seat for a moment, and finally located the outline of the bed.
She was astride me, knees tight around my chest, her face pale, her head thrown back like she was faking the laughter that proceeds a bad joke told by someone you sort of like.
Somewhere in the house a radio was going softly, an impressionistic piano trio. I unfastened her red bra, but she snapped it back on and I didn’t argue.
“Tell me what makes you so sad,” she kept whispering.
“Not being here with you.”
“Please, tell me.”
I gasped and then she gasped. When she came she hiccuped and covered her mouth with her hand. Then our bodies were as immobile and unapproachable as curdled milk on an expensive porcelain saucer. She rolled onto her side away from me and pulled the blanket over her head. I had a desire for words, but I did not act on it and kept myself quiet.
TO BE CONTINUED…
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10.
Francis lives and writes in Nashville.
One day I decided that what I really wanted was
a fedora, so I went out and bought one. When I got
back to my house my friend Paul was there and
after seeing my fedora he was immediately struck
with hat envy. “Well I guess we could go back to
the mall. It is right around the corner after all”, I said.
So we drove back to the mall. The moment we stepped
into the hat store, Paul immediately dove right in.
He must have tried on 40 different hats. “Hey,
check out the peacock feather in this one,” he said, just as
a man in a grey suit entered the store. He seemed a little
peculiar, which upon closer examination was probably
less due to the fact that he was wearing a grey suit,
and more to the fact that he was holding in his
right hand a dead duck. Now, ducks don’t really have
very long necks, so at first it looked a bit like he was
holding a small, though heavy, tote bag. But then I saw
the tiny head with its beak, and the paddles for feet
dangling from the bottom. This was most certainly
a dead duck. I turned around in search of Paul,
but he was lost in the hat collection, on to the top hats.
The man must have noticed me staring at him,
because he turned around somewhat concerned to remain
at least slightly inconspicuous. “Don’t worry about him.
He’s just takin’ a time out.” Some humor, I thought. The man
turned around again and in a whisper added, “He’s a
sleeper duck. He comes from the magical order of
Bococurro ducks. This is just how he sleeps. It’s what
he does.” I scratched my head in bewilderment. “Okay,
so he’s a magical duck. But seriously: who sleeps
hanging by their neck?” “I don’t know. He just likes to
hang loose, I guess. What do you care?” I backed
away and headed back over to where Paul was. Once
there, I nudged him, probably a little too hard, because
he kind of jumped. “What’s up?”, he asked. “You look like
you just saw a ghost.” “Well not really,” I said. I motioned
in the direction of the man, but he must have been in a
hurry, because he was nowhere to be seen. Paul
finally narrowed down his choice, and soon we were
on our way home, but I couldn’t seem to get the duck
out of my head. I even started believing I’d read a look
of sadness in its face. The only place I had ever seen
a duck hung by the neck was in a cartoon. Perhaps
it was Daffy Duck — how his neck would stretch forever
and constantly be subject to some kind of deformation.
One time I remember him being strangled and then
getting up, dusting himself off, announcing: “I’m leaving
showbiz. For good.”