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…
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Late on Friday afternoon the cop from Sutter Falls accidentally took my call after I told the secretary that I was a local politician.
“This is Banes,” the cop said, his voice dripping with nepotism.
“I’m Harry Jome and I’m not a politician,” I said.
The voice immediately roughened up.
“Why would you say you were? I don’t see the sense in that.”
I said the name Ben Bergen, and when that didn’t flip the switch, I said William Florence.
“William Florence. Suicide,” the sergeant said with the tone now of a blunt tool. “What else?” he asked.
“You mean Ben Bergen,” I corrected.
“Whatever you like to call him. Guy had no identification and checked in under the name of Florence.”
“You’re pretty thorough,” I said.
“If that’s an insult you can go climb a pine tree; if it’s a compliment, thanks, we all appreciate it.”
“How’s things up north?” I asked.
“Not too bad. A few minutes ago a couple of the boys brought in some coffee and I drank it.”
“No doubts that it was a suicide?”
The sergeant breathed heavily. “Yeah. If there ain’t nothing else we have some real things to do here. So you can get off my line, buddy.”
“The maid was the first person in the room?”
“What’s your name again?”
“What’s your last name?”
“Jome, I pretty strongly suggest that you call the motel yourself and get the hell off this line. We have a big zero over here and there’s other messes to sweep away from town.”
“What about Daddy Longtree? He in your jurisdiction?”
“What the hell kind of name is that?”
“British, I think, but I don’t know why that should matter. Ben was supposed to be visiting him. Longtree Orchard.”
“OK, Jome,” the sergeant said gently. “Ben Bergen. William Florence. Whoever. Now get off my goddamn line. You boys need to quit molesting us.”
“That fink Lewis-something. I don’t like him and I don’t especially like you and you can tell him I said that.”
“What’s this Lewis-something want?”
“Same thing as you. Same thing as everybody.”
“And what’s that?”
“What we don’t have. We can’t give you what we don’t have.”
“You got nothing, huh?” I asked.
“And lots of it.”
He either fell asleep or hung up. I flipped open my notebook and was shocked to see its condition. First I noticed the absence of my notes and the mangled tear at the head of the binding. The pages had been ripped out aggressively. I wasn’t too upset, as what information I had stored in the notebook was easy to replicate and not very demonstrative to someone unfamiliar with the people who made up the Longtree case.
The second revelation was an embellished business card, an eye peering through a split, billowy cloud. Parker & Porter, Consultants is what it said. There weren’t any particulars, as in what they consulted in, nor an address or contact information. On the reverse of the card, in measly scribbling, was the blatant warning and observation: Fuck You, Jome. I really needed a lock on my door, or a brand-new profession.
Clover’s Bar was the kind of joint that had all but shut down without anyone noticing. Its entrance was off an alleyway adjacent to 19th Street, along a portico lined with the sick geometry of spent bottles of beer. The interior was washed in signed photographs of celebrities, all forged in the same hand and snowed with dust.
The jukebox off in a corner was on, playing a song about a cocaine fiend who can’t find anywhere to get any more cocaine.
Sue Longtree was already drinking a whiskey sour amid the decay as I joined her in a booth. When the barman wearied of watching me motion at him, he came over sullenly and I ordered a soda water. Sue looked at me over the red and white straw in her glass. Near her elbow was a plaid wallet.
“I’m surprised to see you in a place like this,” I said.
“It’s the only spot where I don’t have to be around people like me.”
I stretched out my hands. “I don’t have much more for you that I didn’t have this afternoon.”
“I was hoping you’d have something for me,” she said. “Something small, at least. What happened with Montero?”
“Why’re you being so coy?”
It was so dim in the alcove where we sat that it was almost blurry. Sue was wearing a shade of lipstick that did not flatter her ordinary lips. She’d changed her clothes for a black V-neck sweater that was cut low and that didn’t seem to cover anything beneath it. One sly nipple pressed at the wool fabric. The jewels in her necklace were disheartened in the meek light.
“Go ahead,” she said. “I enjoy knowing where my money’s gone.”
“How’s your husband?”
“Weak. Disgusting. Infantile.”
Soda water was brought to me in a pint glass, carbonation hissing at me and spilling onto the table.
“Well?” I asked.
“It would be pretty outstanding if you told me what’s going on with you. You seem mean. You said you wouldn’t be mean to me anymore,” she said churlishly.
“I never said that, and why’d you hire these people to search my office?”
One corner of her mouth twitched. “What people are they?” she asked.
“Parker. Or Porter. Or both. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. And somebody named Lewis something-or-other.”
She bit into an ice cube. “That wasn’t my doing,” she said.
“I’ll argue with you.”
“So argue then.”
“And doesn’t it seem slightly odd that your brother would use the name William Florence at the motel?”
“Before you said it wasn’t.”
“Now I’m saying it is. Who’s William Florence?”
“You’re the detective.”
Across the bar a man in a sharkskin suit pulled a chair out for a lady in a green sequined dress. Immediately they started squabbling and picking at the pretzels in front of them, the woman chuckling in a cruel way at the man.
“I don’t know what I am,” I said.
She drained the whiskey in a short sip, a giggle flickering in her green gaze. Then she spat an ice cube into the glass. “So?” she said. “So what? I’m paying you to find out what happened to Ben and you’re just–”
“You already know what happened to him.”
“–twiddling your face at me. I know what happened to him. I don’t know why and that’s what you’re for.”
“There’s something else,” I said.
“If there’s something else maybe you can tell me what it is.”
“If I knew what it was I’d tell you.”
A man in a blue sweater sidled up to the bar and leaned into the barman’s ear and went out. I’d seen the man before, in the same sweater, but Sue interrupted my recollection.
“What do you have on Ben?” she asked.
“I don’t have anything. You want me to make something up?”
“That would be an improvement.”
“You’re cold and you’re demure.”
“If my personality bothers you you can hand me back the load of money I gave you.”
“All right,” I said. “It’s true that I don’t have three nice things to say about you and right now I can’t think of two of them.”
Sue grinned, circling her emptied glass on the table and peering at me with something like condescension.
“You haven’t had too many cases, have you?” she asked.
“Not like this,” I said.
“Your worst problem with me is how much you like me and how much you’re willing to prove that you don’t.”
I wanted her green eyes and the flex of her jaw and that single nipple that jutted at me. She was the kind of woman who needed something to prevent her from thinking. Her slender arms were hairless, with thin fingers splayed out like claws. The supreme awfulness of the place settled in. I was yearning for her and she knew it and I had just found out.
Fifteen minutes later I’d divulged what I knew so far about Ben and the Longtrees. She wasn’t thrilled.
“I’d kind of expected you to have this all wrapped up by now,” she said.
“I’m going to check the public archives in the morning,” I said.
Faraway glimmers shot into her eyes.
“Why would you do that?” she asked.
“Why wouldn’t I do that?”
I stood and the barman stared me down as though I were ducking out on the tab.
“I’ll get this one,” Sue said.
“Good,” I said. “I’ll get the next one.”
“The next one?” she asked.
“It would only be fair.”
Sue smiled wide. “I really do think you like me,” she said.
“I haven’t said otherwise. But this isn’t really about who likes whom better.”
Sue ordered another drink. “Have you ever heard the name Wald?” she asked.
“He came by my house asking about you.”
I fixed a quizzical look on her. “Why would this person do that?”
“I wouldn’t ask you if I knew.”
“You wouldn’t tell me at all if you didn’t know more than you’re saying. What did he ask?”
“Where he could find you.”
“And you told him you don’t know.”
“I told him where he could find you. He seemed to be investigating something. He brought up the name William Florence before I’d admitted to anything.”
“I’ll look into it,” I said.
Not waiting for her smile to become more irritating, I left Clover’s, expecting the rain to have eased up but finding that it had become clangorous on the streets. Wald didn’t ring any bells. I didn’t think I’d ever heard of him, but I would very soon. What did he want with Sue? How did he know about her, or about me for that matter? I wasn’t quite sure what to figure on.
I stayed out of the rain for a minute, sheltered underneath a busted neon sign. I peeked into the window and saw that Sue was still smiling at me from inside, a tight, lascivious smile that prodded me in the trousers.
Back when I was a fresh, eager kid I spent the weekends I was not getting plastered at the 6th Street Library, pouring over Aquinas and the other deadly serious boys, the plague, the buying of indulgences, murderous kingdoms, fiefdoms and all the rest of that drab stuff. It was there that I’d met Wilma Baxter, a short, pallid girl with long bangs and straightforward eyes. For a librarian she was rather boozy and flippant and we went a few rounds but it didn’t amount to much of anything. She still worked there.
The library was a graystone, Brutalist slab that stretched the length of the entire block. The morning after my meeting with Sue at Clover’s was relentlessly rainy.
Sue told me that she’d foraged around but most of the vintage documents and clippings were buried or locked away. A stipulation in some will also kept all public records dealing with the Longtree clan off limits for the time being, and so Sue hadn’t come away with much but frustration.
Several stuffed-looking employees attempted to show me to the newsprint section of the archives, where reading machines buzzed tiredly. I stooped at the information desk amid a huddle of zealous amateur historians all vying for the big hunch, and requested some editions of the local paper that would include the name Longtree. The name isn’t a common moniker, but the clerk was afraid, he said, that the information was privileged. He was lanky and he was looking at me like I should have been wearing a tie and a cravat.
“I was testing you,” I said. “Get me Wilma, will you?”
“Is Ms. Baxter expecting you?”
“Well, we had sex a few times.”
The guy fumbled for the intercom and paged the woman, his voice cracking like glass.
Wilma had become even more of a sardonic woman, only now she was a few years older and didn’t care half so much about appealing to everyone as she did in school.
“Nice of you to come by just to see me,” she said in a tone, that, were it a color, would have been copper.
“You come in handy now and then,” I said as she took my arm and led me to an uninhabited reading table in a corner where the shadows lurked. She was in a dark pencil-skirt, and her figure cut into the skirt, emphasizing how broad her hips had grown. Her bleached blond hair was brushed straight back, and there were creases at the corners of her mouth from smirking too much at idiots.
“After all,” I continued. “You do fancy yourself in love with me and you always have. Ever since back then.”
“There’s a lot of love in the world and you are a very slim part of it,” she said. Books were piled all over the table, spilling onto their bindings.
We sat quite close across from each other and stared. Her perfume was so strong I felt like it had been sprayed in my face.
“You look pretty different, Harry,” she said, her eyes fixated on my mouth.
“I didn’t mean to surprise you,” I said.
“You didn’t surprise me is what I’m telling you. Different is good.”
“I thought different was bad.”
“It depends on what you mean by different. And, I guess,” she said, taking one of my hands. “What you mean by bad.”
I felt her touch in my ankles.
“Could you get some stuff for me?” I asked suddenly.
Wilma loosened her grip. “Oh,” she said. “What would you do for it?”
Someone in a blue sweater flashed by and started looking at the titles on a shelf nearby.
“I’ll be nice to you.”
“Anyone can be nice to me,” she said.
“Then I’ll be rude.”
“You are rude,” she said. “But I like you and I like thinking that sometimes you might think about me and take me to an expensive dinner for example.”
“Nope. I don’t think about you and I won’t take you to dinner.”
“You’re romantic,” she said. “And dumb. But honest.”
She ushered me into a room the size of a phone-booth laid on its side and sat glaring at a screen of microscopic type.
“What do you need?” she asked.
“Anything with the name Longtree stamped on it,” I said.
Wilma kissed the back of my neck and went away when I told her to go away. Twenty minutes later she returned with some clippings in an overstuffed folder.
“Just don’t take the originals with you, huh?” she said.
“You might lose your job for this,” I said.
“Not when I’m married to the head librarian as of last Tuesday.”
“Lucky girl,” I said, patting her waist.
“Lucky guy,” she said.
The work was tedious. Every once in a while I surveyed the slow bustle of scholars in the rooms beyond.
Daddy Longtree’s folks were devout Methodists, the founders of Longtree Orchard, and also of a colonial inn on the grounds that had been quaintly dubbed Longtree Manor, but since then had been torn down to make room for more trees. Asked by a newspaperman why he had come to this country to start an orchard business, Simon Longtree responded, in that folksy eloquence of the period, that he couldn’t have achieved much else with a name like his.
The article was written 20 years after the events, an homage to the Longtrees and printed in a bland Sutter Falls newspaper. Around that time the Longtree business was shipping apples all over North America and considering whether or not to export to Europe. They decided that they would not export to Europe.
Simon and his wife Margaret were discovered in a luxurious suite at the inn by a gardener who’d come asking about his paycheck. Margaret was on the floor in her nightdress, a knife sticking out of her stomach. Her husband had drowned in the bathtub; there was an inconsequential bump on the back of his head from the soap holder. The fall hadn’t knocked him out and, it seemed, Simon Longtree drowned fully alert.
But it was the conclusion to the report that struck me: “The various tragedies meted upon the Longtree relations appeared then to have reached a bitter — yet considering later events — not more bizarre crescendo.”
When I was finished with the article I searched for a William Florence in the city directory. There were two leads, the first living on 24th Street, the second a business address on 2nd. Browsing through a pamphlet-sized census I learned that Sutter Falls did not claim a resident with Florence’s name.
I took away some photocopies of the juicy material from the rest of the Longtree files. Wilma wasn’t at the information desk, but I didn’t feel much like waiting to exchange more libidinous awkwardness with her and stepped out onto the massive library steps.
Rain stuttered on the cab’s roof as I advised the driver how to make egg salad. Getting out of the vehicle at my apartment, rain pummeling the sidewalk, the city was condensed into a gray, melodramatic lingering place.
After the library I went to a tailor’s, to a guy named Cramm I’d sometimes heard about. What I needed was a suit and a good one. Nice gray seersucker with a single-breasted coat and a matching vest.
By the time I was being fitted for a suave pricey three-piece at Cramm’s little basement haberdasher’s I was jubilant. I hadn’t bought a suit in a while. The tailor didn’t seem as excited as I was. He was a grim-eyed, balding man with pursed lips and a fraudulent grin that wavered at the least provocation.
I put half down.
“I’m not usually open on Saturdays,” he said by way of explanation.
“Me neither,” I said.
“And I do not work on Sundays.”
“So when will it be ready?” I asked. “Are there any days you do work?”
He shrugged lazily, making the shrug look like a lot of work.
“Wednesday maybe. We have a lot of orders at the moment. I can’t promise anything.”
“How about quicker than that?” I asked.
“I can’t promise anything,” he said.
I paid him an extra $5 but he still looked uncertain, so I left, suddenly sour. Late afternoon had brought stronger rains and sorry clouds that roiled and swept by. I found a restaurant uptown and played with the salt and pepper shakers awhile. The waitress was puffy and liquored. I ordered a cheese sandwich on rye and a glass of milk.
Who cared that some guy had offed himself in one of those moments of weakness meant for the stage? Why a woman like Sue, who had the scruples of a hungry fish, would go through the trouble of hiring a private detective for this didn’t register any kind of sense. Maybe there was more to it. Maybe she was just daffy, like the rest of them — Bergen’s wife a drunk, father a hermit, and Sue too crazed for anything sobering. So the Longtrees were a nuclear collection of sociopaths and suicidal agrarians. To me it was as empty as a wedding vow, and I was being paid — thinking about it was directly against my own interests, whatever my interests were aside from the money in my freezer.
In any case, I was pretty joyous about the new suit, in spite of the rain.
I poked around the newspaper for a minute while the tired waitress kept sliding the receipt closer to me.
Back at the office I rang some contacts in the journalism racket and found out that Parker & Porter Consulting was a legitimate operation, at least on paper. Also that their offices were at 301 East 51st Street, a depleted junkyard section of town. I eased myself out of the office and into a cab. The windows were fogged and I wiped my finger into the condensation until the cabbie told me to quit mussing up his vehicle.
51st Street was drenched in the quietness of all drenched neighborhoods, but the kind of crouched hush that can get loud in a hurry. The trash bins were excessive and overflowed with water, the cops were nowhere, a few residents wandered back and forth on broken porches. They were all black and white and frustrated.
Number 301 had a row of busted windows. A dirt path led to a sheet of plywood that doubled as an entrance. Two orange and white signs warned me that trespassers would not be tolerated. I had to hop onto the sloped porch from the ground. I pounded on the door and heard nothing but the porch dislodging under my feet. Radio news rehashed the events of the world from somewhere close by.
“Vacant,” someone said behind me.
An old woman in a bonnet and white flats was staring at me when I turned, going back and forth frenziedly in a rocking chair on the next porch over.
“You know if someone was here a while ago?” I asked nice. “Two guys maybe?”
“Vacant,” was all she said.
I said thanks and started down the destroyed steps. Halfway down the steps I pivoted abruptly and kicked the weakened door off its bottom hinge, and slipped inside the place. I stood silently for a minute, watching the spray of wood as it fluttered to the floor. There wasn’t much to the place except for a roll-top desk and a moldy teabag on top of the desk. I took a step in and paused.
Relieved of it rungs, a warped wooden ladder was propped on the wall, alongside a few dozen boxes with paperwork spilling out. I was cocky about breaking through a door for the first time and took a couple of footfalls into a wreck of pink insulation flowering around me and a collapsing ceiling, went over and grabbed a handful of papers from the boxes, reading contracts from cases and the occasional tax form.
Whoever he was, the guy sprang on me fast from my periphery. Then there was a scuffle as he wrapped my arm behind me to pin me against the wall, a beard tickling my spine, and he had me by the neck tight in the crook of a muscle. It happened so quick my first response was to laugh, and I gave one long chortle before I couldn’t laugh anymore and didn’t want to and he was laughing too.
TO BE CONTINUED…
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. Order via this page.