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…
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“Hi,” the bearded man said casually into my ear with a blast of disenfranchised breath.
He pushed me farther into the room, paused my strangulation and forced me to kneel. The place was a shambles, the floor stripped to the plywood foundation and strewn with nails and screws and bits of trash fluttering in the wind and rushing in through a gaping hole in the east wall.
“Look,” I said when he released me, finding some fear to put in my voice. “I just bought a fetching suit and I’d like to be able to wear it if you don’t mind. I am trespassing, but I’m trespassing for a reason.”
“Yeah,” he garbled. “Yeah. Uh yeah,” and then, finality lacing his words, “OK. So? So what?” His intonation was freakish, like he’d been taken over by an untuned radio station.
I couldn’t be sure if he was armed or encyclopedically reckless. Turning slightly, I saw that my attacker was carefully biting the skin on his thumb, and not paying me any attention He was nothing but a deadbeat with long, sand-colored hair that knotted at the top of his wide head.
“You a squatter here?” I asked.
He’d forgotten all about me. Extraordinarily blue eyes snapped suddenly and there was kindness in them, but not a lot of kindness.
“Hey,” he said.
“Many people stop by?” I asked.
“Hey,” he told me.
“Don’t be shy.”
“Tomorrow,” he said.
“Tomorrow it will be.”
“Not today though?”
He shook his head slowly.
“Nope,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“Don’t I fucking look it?”
“More than most.” I thrust some dollar bills at him and brushed the debris off my pants.
“Who comes by here occasionally?” I asked.
“Two guys come by. They get the mail and right off. They don’t say hello or anything. Just get the mail and right off.”
“Is one of them fat and bald and shady.”
He considered the image for five seconds, narrowing his eyes, ran a hand through his knotted hair and narrowed his eyes some more.
“Yeah. And so is the other one.”
“Who else? A mean redheaded woman?”
“I’d like her a lot,” he said. “Bring her around if you can.”
All at once he lowered himself onto the floor cross-legged, rubbing his knees vigorously for warmth.
I started to leave.
“Guy named Lewishom,” he said as I was grappling away.
“What about a guy named Lewishom?”
“He came by and asked about the two guys who get their mail here.”
“What’s Lewishom look like?”
“Like ordinary. Blue sweater. Jacket. Head. Said he was a private eye and he was just curious.”
“Just curious about what?”
“About the two guys who get their mail here, and to let him know if and when they come back to get their mail.”
“What did you say to Lewishom?”
“I told him they both get their mail here.”
“Where did he say you could contact him?”
“A billiards hall. Daim’s Billiards. That was the one.”
“How about somebody named Wald?”
“No,” the guy said thoughtfully. “But I know guys by other names.”
“What kind of other names?”
“You wouldn’t know them, they’re not named Wald. Oh wait,” he said. “Wald, Wald. That sounds familiar.”
“Keep it moving along,” I said. “Maybe you’ll pick up some lint with it.”
“No,” he said. “I was wrong. It don’t sound familiar very much.”
The woman in the bonnet wagged her finger at me from a porch down the block, whose yard was filled with a gaggle of television sets in disrepair and plastic buckets overflowing.
“Thanks,” I said to her.
She said, “Vacant?” And nodding theatrically, she answered, “Vacant.”
I had another useless lead to go by, another big squeeze from all sides. Going from 51st Street back downtown was a short, wet journey, reduced to looking at the hint of a defunct metropolis. I passed a heap of cars in a fenced-in yard. Inside the parameter men were rooting for objects of value. Stained glass windows flickered at me from the white church on 46th Street, the sole business in the area that was still rolling high. On 34th Street there was the old train station, now a megalith of jagged panes of glass, a gouged exterior, one railcar out front for nostalgic reasons that had been forgotten long ago.
I kept on. The rain was flooding into my shoes, and the instant I was back downtown I went into a loud department store and bought myself a new pair of shining wingtips.
“What do you think about that?” I asked the clerk.
“About what, sir?” the clerk asked sleepily.
“These new shoes.”
“They’re good. If we sell them they’re good.”
“You bet they are.”
On Saturday I spent the a.m. hours in my bathtub scouring old documents for any mention of the Longtree family, some photocopies of clippings, features and the rare photograph of men with beards in breeches and frigid women in billowing dresses. I perused back to the beginning. From what I could gather, the story went something like this:
In the mid-1800s they’d come over from Scotland, settled up north and didn’t budge from the area. Langley Longtree, Daddy’s great-great grandfather, was convicted of slaughtering his butcher in the old country and fled to America, disgraced but anonymous for a brief time. Apparently, Langley unsuccessfully tried to do away with some more people and eventually strangled himself in prison with his silk handkerchief. Daddy’s great grandfather, Gregory Longtree, tended the orchard and disappeared after a gruesome lynching of the mayor’s wife during a holiday weekend around 1900.
The narrative was as obvious as a madhouse frenzy, like something worse than the plot of a gothic romance by someone who didn’t like people, or cogency, very much.
As far as Daddy Longtree’s father was concerned, the only son among a legion of daughters, there wasn’t much. He built the orchard into profit and lived in relative peace until the double suicide at the inn. The daughters, however, pretty much wandered the orchard and eventually dropped off the record. History doesn’t generally notice those who don’t attempt to magnify it. The violence in the family didn’t take me aback; even in Sue Longtree there was something primitive and dreadful and cold. She was an arrogant mystery and there was no solution to her, just as there was none to her ancestors. It was a crazy story that included disappearances, reappearances of key figures, darkness and havoc. I couldn’t understand it.
I mulled over the Longtrees for about an hour, accompanied by a sloppy cello sonata by a German romantic who’d obviously had his heart broken continuously.
The sound of the rain was growing obnoxious. The tailor called to tell me that the suit might be ready on Monday. There was no chance it would be done before that. I was depressed about it but the tailor didn’t seem to care.
I showered and cursed my tailor while I examined the contents of my closet. Toweling off I passed the window and happened to notice Parker in the courtyard, shaded by a poplar and talking to a fat companion, who I guessed must have been Porter. Another man was a few yards behind them without an umbrella. Parker pointed out my apartment to his partner.
I decided to take a chance on a big detective agency with the hope that Wald was employed there, but didn’t hope for much. It was called the Bizby Detective Agency, and I walked to an office that signaled the very end of 34th Street, over by the swelling banks of the river.
I had no idea it could rain so much. Twigs and kids’ toys and cans floated down the street. The agency was in an old factory that used to manufacture rubber bands. Now the grounds were treeless and not a slip of foliage was visible.
Inside, the expansive single room building was spartan and off to both sides were labyrinthine corridors. Serious men in hats with files tucked under their arms roamed in and out of the corridors, an atmosphere hectic and mechanical, as though everybody had been spat out of a machine.
I was forwarded by a harried secretary to a cubicle in the middle of the main room of small desks, where a bluff of a woman in a brown wool suit was sitting with a file open in front of her. She had her head lowered but strained her masculine, lusty eyes to look up at me.
“I handle the men,” she said, crumpling the folder and delivering it to the wastebasket under the desk as though it were a ritual.
All around us typists hammered on keys with a sound as deafening as a catastrophic hailstorm. Occasionally all the typewriters would stop at once, and the woman would listen distantly and a little angrily until they resumed.
“One of these men you handle is someone I’m looking for,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “So?”
“I was hoping you could tell me what he’s working on so I could feel better about him bothering a case I’m on.”
The typewriters stopped again in unison and the silence lasted for about two seconds.
“That’s not something I can do.”
“Who’s the supervisor here?” I asked.
“I am. I hand out the cases based on our consultants’ abilities and do all the follow-up work.”
“You’re Bizby?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “You a private dick?” she asked.
“We need more private dicks here.”
“Why can’t you tell me about this person I’m looking for?”
“What’s this person’s name and we’ll see where that leads us?”
“Wald?” I said.
“Walter Wald,” she said to herself. “Nothing I can tell you.”
“I bet you can tell me more than that.”
“We have strict policies here,” she said. Her head was still down and her eyes were getting used to my presence.
“So you have strict policies here. Strict policies are generally made for people who don’t comply by them.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” she asked.
“You must have something,” I said. “As one person in this rotten business to another.”
“Oh, I have a lot of files,” she said, her voice and face in monotone. Over the sound of the typewriters I had to lean close to hear what she was saying and it didn’t help that she was talking so low.
“The reason that I can’t tell you anything about Walt Wald is also something else I can’t tell you,” she said.
“I am really asking,” I said. I smiled brightly, and whether it was because no one had smiled at her in a long time, or because she saw how artificial it was, she relented.
“Mr. Walter Wald is no longer employed by Bizby,” she said.
She blinked and I blinked back at her.
“One morning,” she went on, “he was just gone. His stuff was gone. And there was a vulgar note for me taped to his chair.” The woman went on talking about the note and how rude it was and how lousy Wald was and how everybody complained that he couldn’t close a case if it had a latch, how he was probably an alcoholic. “Everybody’s an alcoholic in this business,” she said. “Except for the people who won’t admit it.”
I left through the sea of clattering, wondering what Wald was up to. Nobody so much as glanced at me.
I took an overpopulated bus north to 24th Street, where a William Florence was located. Parker and Porter hopped on at the rear of the bus and stood with their backs facing me next to a grimy fellow with a large book who kept insisting that they find a seat.
At the next stop, a guy in a blue sweater got on and went for the rear and sat adjacent to the grimy fellow with the large book. The bus was becoming some kind of hardboiled convention.
The address for William Florence was in a bland neighborhood with a grassy median running through it and one or two trees that looked like they’d just been stuck there for later use somewhere else. It was a middle-class limbo fighting hard to appear upper-class. The yards were square and zoned with short fences and uncared for thorny bushes. Some kids with dirty knees were tossing around a rubber ball and a group of yellow dogs was watching them and itching their panting faces.
I tapped on the door of a little white house with lace curtains in the windows, a reclining chair on the porch and some spilled soil on the floorboards. Boxes of wine bottles were piled here and there.
The guy who answered the door stood behind a torn screen, feeble and in layers of bulky clothing. He was past seventy but well cared for. Meticulously combed gray hair, a gray mustache that wasn’t dissimilar from a Civil War major’s. Frosty air stirred in the apartment with the clatter of a second person on the premises and the sound of the local news.
“Yes?” he asked, drawing out the word until it almost resembled another.
Inside was the sound of the local news.
“William Florence?” I asked.
“Yes?” he said again.
“Do you know someone named Ben Bergen?”
“No, is he running for office or something.” The old man leaned on the doorframe and licked his mustache.
“Not really. He’s dead.”
“Why should I vote for him, then?”
“I’m asking if you’ve heard the name.”
“I have heard it from you just now.”
Something caught Florence’s attention out in the street and his wrinkled face wrinkled some more. The kids had Parker and Porter surrounded, and the dicks were trying to remain incognito, but the kids were relentless and kept badgering them to catch their ball.
“This neighborhood,” the old man said. “Never used to be like this.”
“What did it used to be like?”
“Not like this. We used to have parades once a week.” He waited for a response and went on, “I never said it was exciting. I’m just saying it never used to be like this.”
“How about the name Longtree? That sound familiar to you?”
“You seem very confused,” he said. “I already told your friend or whomever that I don’t know the name Longtree.”
“What friend?” I asked sharply.
“Man came here this morning asking about the things you’re asking about. Don’t you have a friend who came asking?”
“I don’t have any friends.”
“Maybe that’s the problem. So who are you, young man?”
“I’m a private detective and–”
“Oh,” he said jovially. “Like in those books? Those Dominic Early things.”
“Just like those,” I said.
“I didn’t know there were people like in those things. I’m glad you stopped by because I wouldn’t have known that.” And he slammed the door in my face.
Down the block the kids had dispersed into small delinquent cliques elsewhere. Parker and Porter were pretending to be engrossed by an electrician fixing a telephone pole, each glancing at me. The electrician appeared irritated by the two dicks.
Who’d been asking about the Longtrees? I asked myself, and I was about to start knocking again when another bus halted, aimed downtown and thankfully vacant, at the bus stop.
Hurrying to get on I abandoned Parker and Porter. Both men hustled to catch up, waving their arms at the bus driver who paid them no attention whatsoever. Through the rear window I watched the portly men recede in their disappointed anger. Porter threw his hat on the ground and Parker picked it up and mashed it on his partner’s head. They were so cute in their routine that they weren’t even cute.
I wondered, not for the first time, whether I was as inept as they were in this Longtree debacle. I was missing something and Sue was holding out, but on what I could only conjecture.
I returned to the office, got a batch of blank paper, and waited ten minutes before Parker and Porter drifted up to the building, out of breath and started to see me. Turning with my umbrella I let them follow me to city hall.
The two hapless private dicks were seated on a bench right outside of city hall sheltered from the rain in a dilapidated gazebo. Both were in monochrome vests, sleeves rolled into sloppy bunches, suit coats folded in the empty space between them. To bait them I’d ducked into city hall carrying the stack of blank sheets and deposited the papers in the nearest wastepaper basket. I thought maybe the act would bring out their boldness and it did.
When they saw me Parker stood up, trying to be menacing and cool. His partner had given up on anything more excessive than tilting his head. Rain ran down both their faces, and I was discomfited by how closely they resembled one another.
“Jome,” Parker said in his razor-blade-on-whipped-cream voice. “Sit with us a second, huh? What do you say to that?”
Porter took the coats and set them on his lap and Parker and I sat. Three middle-aged guys sharing the silence of an existential dread. All we needed were bowler hats and canes and a box of caramel drops. We were as fascinating as ice melting in a drain. Parker and Porter moved to crunch against me.
Crisp leaves blew at our feet in a multicolored river.
“I brought my partner along,” Parker said, “because we want to know something and maybe so do you. This is my partner.” Porter smelled like cheap aftershave, and he was only about an inch smaller than Parker.
“What we’d like to know,” Parker said. “Is what it is we aren’t supposed to know.”
“What we don’t know yet,” Porter said. “Such as what’s doing at city hall these days?”
“But we are planning on knowing the facts,” Parker said.
I turned from one to the other of the private dicks, quickly evaluating the knowledge that they didn’t know a single thing about a single thing.
You two boys figure it out and I’ll be right here if you need anything,” I said.
“What stymies us,” Porter said, “is what’s going on with Sue Longtree and you and why’d you go into city hall like that?”
Parker said, “And we’re going to be around you until we find out.”
“The lady has you looking at a suicide,” Porter said.
“So what’s so big about it?” Parker asked. “It ain’t real fascinating but you and she are acting like it’s real fascinating. So why is it so fascinating?”
“What’s the real thing that’s going on here?” Porter said.
There was a little green park going brown across the street, and people in suits were hurrying around in the rain. Next to us on another bench was a man leaning our way, in full denim attire. A wind from the east blossomed and Porter clutched at the hat he’d thrown on the road a little while ago.
“Our affiliation is purely professional,” Parker said.
“Only thing professional about either of you is your absence,” I said. “And that’s debatable.”
Almost in unison they each took one of my arms in fat, quaking hands.
“Listen, Jome,” they said in a gravelly duet.
“Listen, Jome,” Parker said for a second time. “This is serious and we’re serious about it. Our employer would like to be kept abreast and our client is serious, too.”
“I’m sure your client is serious. Everybody’s serious.”
“What’s the drift?”
“There isn’t any drift. You said you have some information for me.” I brushed off their mitts, standing, and glared at them.
“Well,” Parker said. “When you throw us some information we can toss some back to you and we can play that till our arms get tired.”
I jerked a finger at Porter. “Why’s he so quiet all of a sudden?”
“Jome is funny,” Parker said to his partner.
“He thinks he’s funny,” Porter said.
“Yeah, and he’s not very funny.”
“He’s not very funny at all because he thinks he is.”
A woman halted a dog to urinate in front of us and the woman blushed at the three of us and walked off.
“Fuck you,” Parker said.
“I’m glad you’re being yourself again,” I said.
City hall was bristling with suits and briefcases. Somehow these goons understood less than I did about the Longtrees and Bergen.
“You’re not saying anything helpful,” Parker said.
“How about this,” Porter offered. “We’ll tell you something helpful and then you can tell us something helpful about you and Sue Longtree.”
I did my best impression of being impassive.
“All right?” Parker said.
Porter nodded. “Yeah, I think he might be OK with that.”
“There’s another guy on you,” Parker said. “Has the name of Wald and this Wald is sitting right over there.” He flicked his head toward the guy in jeans and a jean jacket and smiled.
“Thanks,” I said. “But that’s recycled news.”
“So what do you have for us?” Parker asked.
Porter said, “Because we’ve just given that to you.”
“As a gift.”
I adjusted my coat sleeves that had been crinkled by their bulbous mitts. “Once I get the drift of something I’ll be sure to let you know,” I said. I fell in with the conglomerating crowd. “See you fellows later.”
“That’s not very nice,” one of them said.
“Not very nice at all,” said the other.
When I passed him the man in denim quickly scurried to his feet and followed me along the sloshed avenue. I walked the bridge over the flooding river and he was there still, pausing when I paused. Reaching my apartment I saw him ebb and disappear further uptown. Sure that he was gone, I doubled back and took a cab to Daim’s Billiard Hall.
TO BE CONTINUED…
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. Order via this page.