10
Sep
2012

THE LAST ORCHARD IN AMERICA, by Michael Peck — Finale

Herein the final installment of Peck’s long-running serial noir. In the previous installment, private eye Harry Jome was running off the rails in pursuit of an elusive truth. At the orchard itself, he was about to meet the proprietor and father of the woman whom he can blame, maybe, for the pursuit — or at least this iteration of it. Things were getting Shakespearean, and they continue thusly…

Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (available for a limited time).

 

Chapter 37

I pulled up to the mud outside the cottage. Trees had collapsed all around the square pasteboard building, badly-fitted planks covering holes where windows should have been, and there were hints of light in the cracks. The grass was four feet high except in those spots where some heavy-farming implement had been abandoned. I wasn’t sure why I was waiting for darkness to come. I was drained and tried closing my eyes, but I was too tired for rest. I was too tired for anything, especially this.

Night fell in sharp checkerboard dividends around the branches and squat hills. A playful moon and a timorous solitude made the orchard look quaint and innocent. I waited until the horizon was dark, the motor humming me back to childhood. I noticed streams of chimney exhaust blankly descending into the gravelly sky above.

The orchard brought a feeling I had experienced at my worst moments. Maybe it was a metaphor, but I didn’t think much of metaphors. Besides, the presence of death everywhere doesn’t beg poetry to have much of an imagination. The orchard was a symbol in a drawing, and I was entering that place where a symbol and a reality were difficult to tell apart.

I shut off the motor and got out, immediately breathing in the dread that seemed to have constructed the place. From somewhere near the main road I heard the acceleration of a vehicle, and perhaps the creak of a door opening and not closing. And I heard nothing else but my own footfalls crunching on dead leaves.

I let myself in to the cottage without bothering to knock. The stench of dead fruit had me incapacitated for an instant. I felt at the grip of the pistol tucked into my waistband.

The space was nothing but a wasted accumulation of old tools and sacks full of spilling apples, a compact fusion of kitchen, living room and bedroom. Daddy Longtree blinked at me from behind a table that was really just a long door propped up by concrete blocks. He was eating an apple pie with a butter knife, and there was a lantern in the middle of the makeshift table, providing only enough light to find the lantern itself.

“I heard you out there in your car for about an hour or so. Hope you aren’t scared of me.” Longtree groaned. He had a strand of gray hair combed toward his eyebrows, slight gray stubble that rose high on his prominent cheekbones and close-set dark eyes that were like bubbles on the surface of a swamp.

“I was thinking of being afraid,” I said. “But I decided against it. There’s enough fear in you for the both of us.”

“I’m not afraid of you. I just met you.”

“Right now I’m a little afraid of me. And not to get on a tangent, but what’s that kid’s problem out there?”

“He’s just mean. He’s an orphan. Orphans can be mean.”

I grabbed a chair by the sink and brought it over to face him. He munched contentedly on the spoiled, mold-green pie. Moving things rummaged in the crust.

“They’re going to build a lunatic asylum on my land,” Longtree said. “What should I think of that?”

“They won’t have to look far for inhabitants.”

Longtree smiled, then grew serious and smiled wider.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said.

“That doesn’t sound hopeful.”

“It isn’t.” He scooped a large helping, bending his head and using his free hand to scrape a rogue apple slice into his mouth. Something pried its way from between Longtree’s lips and skittered away.

“We all of us,” he said, “have one day to go back into the dirt. I’m getting a head start.” He scraped what remained of his brown teeth with the butter knife. “It’s around that time when I should ask who you are,” he said.

“Whoever I am doesn’t matter.”

“Are you selling something?” he asked.

“I’m not selling anything.”

“Everybody is selling something.”

“What are you selling, Longtree?”

He lifted his eyes to the ceiling and contemplated the tears in the plaster. “I honestly don’t think I’m selling anything.”

“Who were you with that night at the bar?” I asked.

“What night?”

“That night you were there. Was it Florence?” The overpowering stench of vinegar was becoming familiar and less noxious.

“Who?” Longtree asked coyly. “Who is that? Florence?”

I was beginning to doubt someone and it wasn’t me. “What about Ben Bergen, your son.”

“I don’t have any son,” he said wistfully.

I stared at him as he plunged back into the pie.

“You think that’s a good angle?” I asked.

He peeked at me above a scoop of pie. “I’m not being cagey. I did have a son. Now I don’t have a son. He died off a few years ago.”

“How?” I blurted.

Longtree only shook his head. Frustration was getting a clawing at me. I pulled the pistol out of my pants and put it on my lap.

“And what about your daughter?”

“I do have one of those. Sue. She’s a belligerent girl. Sue has problems. It is a Longtree trait.”

“Sue’s dead too. Drowned herself in a tub.”

Longtree had nothing in his face. “I sort of supposed that,” he said.

“William Florence?” I said. “And I’m not really kidding. Who is he?”

“Yes, Will is an insurance man. He was digging in the Longtree family — something about a policy taken out on Sue by her sleazy husband. It’s possible that he discovered more about the Longtrees than anyone ever had and was planning something. He was coming here to grease his hands. Which is probably what you’re here to do as well.”

“Ever read the papers?”

“No.”

“I think Florence was the guy in the motel with the bullet in the back of his head.”

“Does that concern me?”

“That depends on whether it concerns you. So Florence got something on you and you paid him.”

“I didn’t pay him.”

“What did you do?”

Longtree breathed and his breath was stale and wretched. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Somebody did something.”

Connections were piling into my head faster than I could sort them out. If Sue was lying about Ben she’d done a nifty job of covering it up by changing the last name and making sure I couldn’t trace it here. Which I did anyway.

Longtree reached under the table and I tensed. The object in his hand was a book and he set it down between us. One apple-encrusted thumbprint was visible on the cover. He sighed. I looked at the flap: A History of Death. By Dominic Early. Of all people.

He said, “It’s loosely based on the history of my horrific family, which you might know something about. All the names are changed, obviously, but it’s a thrilling work. My father was a murderer, as was his father, and his father, etc., etc.” Longtree belched. “There’s no reason in it. Just inheritance of very bad genes, I guess. Every Longtree is a monster. You should be careful, Mr. Jome. They say that whoever struggles with monsters is likely to become one.”

“Who says that?”

“My dead wife, actually. That’s why I’m alone up here. I like being alone up here.”

I crushed a beetle that was climbing up my pants leg and said nothing because there was nothing to say.

“I am the commonest man,” Longtree said. “Aren’t I? Wouldn’t you say that I am the commonest man?”

I put the gun on the table and pointed it at him.

“Sure,” I breathed. I couldn’t stand his frazzled smirk any longer. Longtree only cut another dollop of bug-infected pie and pretended that the gun and I weren’t there. Finished, he bent over and took something off the floor and handed it to me. It was the drawing of the orchard, although in this one the charcoal had been scratched off in places.

“That’s the original,” Longtree said. “I’d like it if you had it. I used to give copies of it to people I respected.”

He paused and licked crumbs out of his facial hair with a wide tongue, laying the drawing on the table.

“I’m glad you’re here though,” he said. “Just to remind me why I’m here.” He gazed longingly at the pie. “I am awfully glad you’re here. I made the discovery long ago,” as though reciting from a fairy tale, without pausing, “that I was a murderer. What made me kill Ben? I had no option. He told me how hard it was for him to function without the urge to kill someone. I don’t think he ever did. But before I stopped telling him it was going to be OK my hands were around his neck and I had no control at all and he just let me do it.” Longtree stared off calmly. “When he was dead I hung him in his garage. First time I’d been away from here. Everybody was sad for me. I was sad for me. Even now I don’t have any guilt or anything. I wonder why that is?”

I slumped back in my chair. He continued to sputter on as he ate.

“I couldn’t have anyone suffer. Ben was going to be a murderer like the whole course of his ancestry and I had to prevent that.  And then I did prevent that. I was thinking of his little girl. I was also thinking of everybody else too.”

Now he didn’t use his utensil, but just dug into the pie with his hands and stuffed a mound of apple and insects into his unperturbed grin.

“So now you are aware. You probably would have figured it out sooner or later,” he said. “So how much do you want?”

I stared hard at Longtree.

“You know about farming?” he asked me, pricking up his eyes to meet mine. “First you have to care for each tree like it was a part of your own body. That’s why my orchard is so successful,” he said. “I got 50 pickers at least. I make such a nice apple pie. Mm hmm,” he mumbled. He tapped his ring finger twice on the pie tin. On the third tap his hands and his head dropped at the pistol’s retort. I was mildly surprised that I had shot him. A billow of acrid smoke erupted to the rafters and stayed there. Longtree’s legs twitched, kicking out an absurdly fast dance. He had one last breath to say something pithy, but it came out in a whisper that I couldn’t hear and smelled rankly of bitter almonds. I hadn’t thought death would smell of bitter almonds. There were a lot of things I didn’t know.

On my way out I had to laugh. Because of the Longtrees and my role in wiping the rest of them out, directly or indirectly. Except for the daughter, Dot, who was the last of them. But she couldn’t be a part of this grisly tale. My laughter fell flat in the cramped and anguished room, dying the split-second it pushed off my lips. Head turned to the ceiling, still seated at the table, Daddy Longtree was just a shadow,  and not an imposing one either.

For a minute I stared at the drawing of the orchard up close to the lantern, a hint of something important tugging at me, just off the border of the picture. What was it in the dark shapes and swirls that was I missing? My mind was all puckered, waiting. It seemed that it was all right there; the problem was that I couldn’t be sure what “it” was supposed to be, “all” signified, or “there” was. The upturned furniture and the apples were starting to bother me, and so I folded the drawing and brought it with me. I imagined a voice coming from somewhere nearby, looked at Longtree, as inert as an ice sculpture.

The night was warm with the musty smell of imminent rain. Just outside in the grass I unfolded the drawing and peered at it some more. There was still something I was not getting but that was spelled out plainly in the charcoal smudges. Again I heard the muttering voice, the way someone might talk on the telephone from the other side of a thick wall, coming from a batch of tall trees to the east.

I waited with the drawing in my hands, not certain how to handle my delusions, or if they were delusions. For the third time I wound the drawing into a tube and simply stood there listening.

 

Chapter 38

There was no moon, and I was forced to go by what scant noise there was. Owls fluttered and sang, the trees soughed, animals moved about. It took a lot of effort not to think about anything. Underfoot the dirt crackled, and when I had my hand on the car door I heard something I shouldn’t have heard, namely a man’s voice starting to sing a lovely song and then instantly halting the lyrics.

“Jome?” the man said from the trees. “I was just thinking about you.”

I swiveled, fearing for a second that the voice was my own and then fearing more that it wasn’t. I was so sleep deprived I could no longer tell whether or not I was talking.

“Jome,” the person said again from a copse of trees surrounded by a clearing of fallen saplings.

“Who’s asking?” I shouted.

“I am.” The man’s tone was high-pitched, recognizable, though I couldn’t place the cadence, and possibly drunk. “I heard what you did. What’d you do anyway? In there with Longtree? You gone lunatic or something?”

I squinted through the twisted foliage, raising the pistol towards the sound. I couldn’t make the man out.

“Longtree killed his son,” I said. “So I killed him back. The story has a happy ending for everybody.”

“Not for Longtree it doesn’t.”

Neither of us said anything for a minute.

“Which one are you?” I asked.

“I’m Walt Wald.”

“I figured.”

“Do you have it figured, Jome? What do you think you’re going to do now that you have it figured?”

“I haven’t really gotten to that part yet. I was planning on getting in my car and driving back to the city.”

“Tonight? That’s a long drive. Maybe you should stay somewhere and start fresh in the morning.”

“Are we talking about something, Wald? This has lost some track.”

“Look, Jome. I’m a private investigator and Sue hired me to watch Lewishom and I just came upon him after you killed him in his car. Not very nice of you, Jome. I know what it probably looks like in Longtree’s and I won’t argue. But I thought you’d let me take you in because you’re going to be in regardless and it would be nice if I could be the one to do it. That’s two dead people. Knowing you I’m sure there’s more somewhere else.”

“Lewishom killed himself.”

“That could be claimed about everybody in a way.”

“That doesn’t sound convincing.”

“That Sue is a crazy bitch,” he said. “Can you believe it?”

“She was,” I said. I crouched low, aiming into the darkness. The moon was sneaking coyly out from a cluster of clouds now and when it did the clearing would be illuminated.

“Why the past tense, Jome?”

“She drowned herself,” I said.

“When did she do that?”

“Earlier.”

Ahead, the spot where the man was concealed was being slowly lighted.

“I just talked to her little while ago,” the voice said. “That’s too bad. How am I going to get the money she owes me for this?”

“I’m not sure, Wald.”

“I’m not either.”

“She told me she was going to Florida after all this.”

And the moon flared, revealing the clearing and the tall, upright figure that was just a glancing silhouette and nothing more.

“What do you mean Florida?” I asked. “And what do you mean, all of this? What is this?”

“I mean,” he started to say, and just then my gun interrupted him and the silhouette dropped hard with a scattering of twigs. I stood and got into the car. On the way back my headlights swept over the stoned kid from the office. He was wide-eyed and he was running for the cottage. I rolled the window down.

“Kid,” I yelled at him. “It’s a real mess up there.”

His mouth said something and he kept running.

The strong breeze was invigorating and I was suddenly awake.

I returned through the wreckage of trees, all mold and utter sorrow. Nestled into a turnaround off the path a green sedan was parked, belonging, I guessed, to Wald.

I drove too fast, skimming into culverts and narrowly missing a few trees. Maybe I’d killed Longtree to offer some kind of resolution; then again, I could have simply not known what to do. I blamed it on fatigue and confusion. But killing Wald couldn’t be rationalized. Maybe it could.

Additionally there seemed to be a gathering of private dicks out for me. Why had Sue hired all these people and had them follow me and each other? Nothing made sense.

Sue Longtree, I thought, probably deserved everything that she did to herself.

Why anything anymore.

And so Ben Bergen was what he’d always been: a name, and a face I’d never seen.

I was coming down with a rotten head cold, and endured a bout of sneezing while I drove.

I really wished the suit was done already.

Coming into view of Sutter Falls and back on paved roads I was overlooking the lake and the moonlight dinging off the surface. I braked and for five minutes I admired the water and the air, and then I felt stupid and kept driving. It was just past nine.

I passed fields and lonely farmers on tractors inching through the fields.

I was sure that I was being followed, and a moment later I was sure I wasn’t. Then I wasn’t sure. Cars appeared and reappeared in my rear-view with inconstant regularity. I was convinced that both Wald and Lewishom were behind me somewhere in the night, still tenaciously on the case. I couldn’t shake them. Every few miles I pulled off to the side. Twice I thought their respective cars had bypassed me when I was stopped. I learned to stop looking behind me.

The drawing was on the seat beside me and I repeatedly held it to the dome light, looking into the amateur lines for some kind of meaning. Finally I stuck it out the window and let the rush of wind have it.

The wipers were on the whole drive. Twenty minutes away from the city and it was pouring again. At each off-ramp into town I kept driving, until there weren’t any more exits and there was just the highway and the static lights of the highway.

Eventually I turned back. I was obsessing over my tailor and getting mad that the suit wasn’t finished yet.

The city, suddenly — the things and places that were familiar — felt somehow foreign.

 

Chapter 39

At the office a legion of dust stalked the air and settled over the ruins of furniture. The reddish shadow from Parker’s head had dulled to a milky relief, like the pigment you’d see in a Rothko.

An hour and 20 minutes to midnight. Sleeping would have been the right thing to do, but I was too exhausted and too haunted for the idea not to seem like a nightmare. Instead I stretched out under the window like a cat. Ants bustled on the wood near my face, and I felt like drowning some of them in my saliva. The gash in my throat was still bandaged and the sting had gone away but I could feel my heartbeat throbbing in the wound. I pried myself off the floor without any ants being harmed and gobbled a handful of aspirin. From a desk drawer I pulled a tissue, the cold now filling my head and eyes.

I was finished.

In a lunge of exotic dread I was suddenly emptying the contents of the filing cabinets one by one, yanking bygone cases and files and items from the drawers and just piling it all on the floor in a mania I couldn’t explain but for an odd reason enjoyed.

I blamed it on the Longtrees, along with everything else that was wrong.

After 20 minutes I’d tired myself out and sat and watched the neon city bounce around inside the room. The office was now a tangled mess of clutter, a broken mug scattered in the midst.

Maybe I was looking for something and by not finding it I was coming closer to realizing that there was nothing to find. The Longtree fiasco was itching me and I couldn’t do anything about it. What had it been about?

I stood and tried to shake off my brain.

Rain smeared the windows and the lights outside. Then lightning flattered the night in an afternoon glow.

I smiled at the man in the window. He didn’t smile back.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I asked.

“I got a cold or something.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Is it?”

And then I punched the window, but it didn’t shatter and I tried again. Then I tried again and it still wouldn’t shatter.

I looked at my knuckles. At the wall. At the dust. At the broken mug. Everything didn’t feel right.

I was drifting off into a black-and-white dream when the call came in. I thought I recognized the soft-spoken, uneasy voice. “Harry Jome?” the man asked.

“I think so. Let me check.”

“Could you meet me right away? I’m at the diner near your building?” He said it like a question.

“I’m a little busy here just now.”

“It’s not unimportant. It’s about Sue Longtree and some other things.”

“I don’t care about Sue.”

“You might care about these other things,” the man said and wasn’t there. I pried myself into the elevator and got to the diner a minute later.

At a far booth inside the diner a skinny teenaged couple were necking with every part of their bodies except for their necks. Both of them pimpled and as carefree as quantum physics. The place was drenched in artificial warmth. Behind the counter the waitress who’d caused the commotion a few days ago had returned to her job, obviously pregnant and obviously angry about it. The teenaged boy glared at me as though I was his girl’s uncle come to take her home.

The man at the counter was in a gray tweed suit and brown spats. He had a stoic profile. He was too poised and pale to belong there. His salt-and-pepper hair was long and parted and hadn’t been touched by a barber in months. A mustache fit perfectly on his upper lip. His umbrella had fallen underneath his stool, and near his elbows there was a stack of stapled papers.

I wedged into the stool beside him and shook my head when the waitress asked me what I’d have.

“Jome, isn’t it?” the man asked. When he turned his eyeballs were crystals, very blue and very careful.

“You Florence?” I asked back.

“No, but it’s still nice to know you. Sorry about the circumstances.”

“I don’t know what the circumstances are.”

He shrugged. A cup of coffee was pushed off to the side.

“Are you Florence?” I asked. “Or Bergen or some other asshole?”

“I should be somebody,” he said, using his fingers to taper his mustache.

“Whoever you are you’ve caused a lot of stupid dying and I’m the one going to be chained up for it.”

“People sometimes die,” he said casually. “Isn’t it better that it’s for a reason?”

“What’s better for a reason?”

“What I’m telling you.”

“So far you haven’t told me anything.”

“I haven’t?”

“No.”

“I thought I had. Well, I’m saying that those deaths were kind of not my fault. By the way, how many people have you killed in the past couple of days?” His mustache twitched like it was trying to leap away from his mouth.

“OK. So I don’t know what you have or if you have anything,” I said. “Ben Bergen is dead but used another name and I can’t track down Florence, which is the name he used. And Sue is dead and a couple of nerds called Parker and Porter,” I realized that I was counting the dead on my fingers. “Lewishom. Wald, I think. Maybe even somebody I’ve never heard of.”

The man nodded and bit both his lips at the same time.

“Maybe I’m the guy you’ve never heard of,” he said. “Dean Bruckner. We’re in the same line of work.

“How did that happen?”

“The Longtree lady needed somebody good to follow you and the guys following you and to keep eyes on how it was going.”

“I never noticed you.”

“Because she needed somebody good. I just told you. And I’m a little proud of that.”

“You shouldn’t be.”

“I am though.”

“So what?” I said. “What about Bergen and Florence.”

“I don’t know anything about them but I do know that neither of them has anything to do with this.”

Bruckner’s troubling eyes were mellow with the intensity of brooding over intense things. The light in the room was all crooked, like an origami construction of shadows.

“Ever hear the name Dominic Early?” Bruckner asked.

“I know all about Domoinic Early. He and Sue are the same person. A hack writer of juvenile stuff.”

“I’m glad you know Early is Sue because that’s the big explanation.”

He slid the stack of pages over to me. I flipped the manuscript over. The title was big and blatant and contained five words: The Last Orchard in America. And below that, A Novel by Dominic Early.

“Jome, you were just research for Sue’s latest dumb potboiler and I was the researcher,” Bruckner said. “She hired me to track you around town. She was all blocked up, she said. The case was only for a plot of hers. All she wanted to do was stir things up by hiring a bunch of investigators and see what popped out of the disorder.”

“Is it any good?” I asked without knowing why I asked.

“She’s not a good writer and it has no ending. It does include her suicide though. Maybe you can conclude it if you want to.”

Somewhere within me everything halted. The answer I had was to the question I hadn’t asked. I was so enraged I felt almost weightless.

“So what do you want?” I asked. “You and Sue got away with something. I was a character in her book. I’m not sure what she got away with, but something happened and you must have been causing something to happen. Or else you wouldn’t be here with my phone number in your pocket. So what about Bergen? What about anybody? What the hell went on?”

“The answers are all there Jome. Your problem is that there are no questions.”

“So what do you want, Bruckner?”

Looking at me, he puzzled over how he was going to phrase it. “I thought you should know about her manuscript,” he finally said. “And I also wanted to tell you how bad of a private investigator you are.”

He curled his mouth into a smile that didn’t spread to the rest of his face.

Halfway out the door, yanking up his umbrella, he turned and asked too pleasantly: “Is it ever going to stop raining?”

The horny couple was staring at me and they were frightened at what they saw. I followed Bruckner out to the drenched street. Lightning burned the sky a crimson blush.

It was never going to stop raining.

I had Sue’s manuscript in my hands, and I raised it above me to shield off some of the downpour. I wasn’t going anywhere, if I ever had been.

Another flash of lightning exposed Bruckner conferring with someone under an archway. I couldn’t see who it was. I took a handkerchief out of my pocket and daubed my cheeks and forehead. I looked at the handkerchief and saw that it was moistened with wet gray ink. The manuscript’s print was dripping all over me and I choked a little on the ink as it swept into my mouth.

No, it wasn’t ever going to stop raining.

Standing there soaking on the stoop of the diner I imagined the oceans and the rivers and reservoirs outside of town that nourished the city all breaking loose and ripping apart and absorbing the brick facades and the embellished cornices and the stairwells and small sports cars and vending carts and street signs and deck chairs and expensive dresses. I realized that I hated everything that had ever been. Because it was not going to stop raining.

I conjured an image of my suit and the image wouldn’t leave me. It was a flawless suit, and in my pondering it fit me better than my skin. I wanted that suit.

I walked and walked and there were low voices all around me in the night. Soon I was in front of my tailor’s and my rage was ballooning. His basement shop was brightly lit. I let myself in through the front door and descended the stairs. The room was inhabited by five or six faceless mannequins in various postures. Cramm had his back to me in a monogrammed bathrobe, his black hair disheveled.

“Where’s my suit, Cramm?” I asked, startled by the ferocity in my voice.

He spun around and backed up into one of the mannequins, dropping a piece of chalk. One of the figures was wearing what I imagined my gray suit to look like, white lines running up and down the sleeves and pants.

“It looks pretty done to me,” I said.

“Almost, sure,” Cramm said, fear set in his dark eyes. After a second he said, “The cuffs aren’t sewn on yet.”

I advanced toward him. “I don’t give a damn about the cuffs. I never figured you to be this kind of person, Cramm. I’m disappointed.”

“Sorry,” he said. “But the suit is not done.”

Cramm was shaking when I went by him and tilted my head at the suit. The fabric was satiny. I hadn’t seen a better suit, even considering the white tracings. This suit was the clothier’s version of a ballad.

The tailor was crying and going for the staircase slowly. I pulled the pistol and fired, and the shot caught him in the hip and he fell behind some cardboard boxes.

I lifted the three-piece job off the mannequin and stripped, putting the rain-blanked manuscript on a stool. Removed my pants and jacket and slipped into the smooth seersucker I’d been waiting for. The fit was grand. I took the manuscript and passed Cramm clawing at the bottom stair.

“What’s all this for?” he said.

“For not having my suit done faster.”

“The cuffs still need to be measured,” he said weakly, and then I think he died.

“I like it how it is,” I said.

Soon I was under a streetlight and some men were scurrying around the dark buildings. I turned down an alleyway, glancing back to see some fellow entering Cramm’s shop and gesturing for others.

I felt better with the suit on.

A sirocco wind had sprung up and the bridge swayed over the river, and the river smelled of beached fish and that peculiar lachrymose pungency that water gives off before dawn. It was 4:20. I hadn’t been to my apartment. Hadn’t slept in how many days I couldn’t remember.

There was a barge somewhere off in the night. Foghorns throttled out every few seconds like a slow, dense clock. The bridge was empty of pedestrians and vehicles, the parapet below shaded by trees, the starless-ness of the sky jumpy with accumulating storms. I put two hands on the metal supports and whistled. I hadn’t whistled in a while. The resonance across the harbor was like some lost lullaby repeated from someone I’d never met. I whistled and whistled, a whistling maniac standing on a bridge. Wearing a fresh suit.

I held out my palms. It wasn’t raining anymore. I was glad. I was so glad I upped the volume of my dirge.
And then I wasn’t whistling anymore.

 

Chapter 40

The same is true for the end of a story as it is for the beginning: where do you say it’s done? At the moment all of the various stupid actions make fate inevitable? That moment, however, could have been all along.

Endings are always the same because they’re usually not the same.

Below me, the river clashed with the pale banks, flooded onto the grass of a park. The night was a everywhere.

The ending could have been a batch of spotlights from the north side of the bridge, and the anomalous quietude of daylight shining through the darkness.

Could have been the silence of the men holding the spotlights steady and the displaced whispers of their supervisors.

Or Cowper materializing out of the spotlight, the way you can tell by his posture that he’s serious. Bent cigarette held in between his lips that looked as though he’d forgotten about it since last he’d visited me.

Any ending could be what he said to me on the bridge.

“Why’d you do it, Jome? All those people? Any reason whatsoever?”

Could have been my response, that maybe I was just frustrated with the whole goddamn idea. “I haven’t slept too well lately,” I said. “If only you understand how much of this I don’t understand.”

The end could have been the rain slaloming off Cowper’s hat or the men behind Cowper who were giving themselves shapes in the spotlight.

Suddenly I felt the great thrill of feeling nothing and the feeling was good. And that would have been a partly decent ending.

Cowper approached casually, as though we’d planned to meet here. Some of the men were close behind him. Now that I had my suit on I was ready, and it didn’t matter that the suit wasn’t finished. I pulled myself onto the bridge’s railing, head lowered to the clamorous river.

The end could have been that I didn’t care, or it could have been something as simple as a nod, because these kinds of things usually end on a bridge.

 

END

 

PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. “Last Orchard…” is his first book-length work of prose.

 

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19
Jun
2012

THE LAST ORCHARD IN AMERICA, by Michael Peck — Part 5

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).

 

 

Chapter 16

“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 what?”

“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.”

 

Chapter 17

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.

“Sometimes.”

“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.

 

Chapter 18

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.

 

Chapter 19

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.

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09
Jun
2012

THE LAST ORCHARD IN AMERICA, by Michael Peck — Part 4

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).

Chapter 12

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?”

“Jome.”

“What’s your last name?”

“Still Jome.”

“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.”

“You boys?”

“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.

 

Chapter 13

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?”

“Nothing.”

“Why’re you being so coy?”

“Because.”

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.

“Not really.”

“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.

 

Chapter 14

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.

 

Chapter 15

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.

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