Eugene Harrow's finally got his own Private Detective firm. The first person to come to him, one Ms. Wonder, has a flimsy story about an adulterous husband that turns out to be more trouble than it's worth.
Even through the cigarette smoke- illuminated by the morning sun- I could make out the letters of my name, reversed on the frosted glass of the office door. ENEGUE WORRAH they read from my side of the glass. For too many years I’d worked from behind a door with someone else’s name, now it was mine. There was a lot going on in my small patch of dirt, and having my own firm was a means to get a grip on things. Instead of working for a living, now I was the one paying wages. And salary didn’t matter as long as I was closing cases- which I did.
My scarcely furnished office was a hodge-podge of decor collected around the traps; estate sales, classifieds, and hard rubbish on the roadside. I tried opening the rum draw at the bottom of my desk. The draw shifted to the left and caught on its own enclosure. The whole desk rocked, and I had to pitch the draw left and right to shimmy the it from its confines. The fire in that bottle warmed my chest the way cigarettes cooled my lungs.
The draw snapped open, I felt the bottle hit the front facing panel, then retreat to the back of the draw with a lop-sided roll, the fiery contents sloshing within. As I poured my slug a figure materialised from behind that frosted glass. The head of a fair dame popped out from behind the door- my receptionist, Liz. A fine girl, with enough of a repressed mean streak to get by in this sort of business. Her dear mother would have a heart attack if she knew who she was working reception for. She had fair hair, a freckled face that could get you locked up for a long time, and a body that made it worth it. She had aspirations beyond a drunk for a husband and 3 kids, the sort of gumption that can make a silent partner in those certain… hairy cases.
‘Got a woman here to see you, you’ll like this one.’ She said. Liz had the start of husky, wolfish nature in her voice. The sort that could be trained with a couple of years worth of spirits and cigarettes. Not that I’d expect her to go near the stuff.
‘You checking out the customers now? I didn’t think you swung that way.’ I took conversation as a chaser for my rum, I had little choice.
‘Baby, I’m a Merry-go-round. Her name’s Wonder.’
‘Wonder? Is that her first name, or her last?’
‘It’s not her first name, and I doubt it will be her last either.’
‘You keep talking in riddles like that and I’ll knock your lights out.’
‘I’d rather you show me the light.’ She slipped that dainty dome of hers back behind the door. I heard the latch catch before she sent Ms. Wonder in.
Now, Ms. Wonder was an All American Woman in every sense of the term. She had a face from New York Fashion Week, a bust from LA, a backside from Cleveland, and legs like Texan roads- as in, they were so long and straight you started to wonder where they went. She was full of defined, straight lines- but curved at the same time. As much carved from marble as sown into a sack of flour. A woman like this, on this side of the river, made no sense at all- in the best possible way. She slid into the seat in front of me, keeping back-stiff composure and a straight ahead pokerface the whole time. A full-brimmed black hat sat drooped on her head like the saddest flower you ever seen, black bug-eye sunglasses in place of any emotion, and a small buttoned frown too cute to call uncomplimentary. ‘So, Ms. Wonder, what brings you in here?’ I kicked off conversation first- it stalled like a wrecker.
She tilted her head to look down at the bottle on my desk. She looked back at me and said, ‘hope I’m not interrupting.’ I swung my feet down from the desk and faced her in my chair front on.
‘Not at all. Don’t mind that, everyone has to start the day somehow. People say I’m a drinker the same way I’m a lover, I like to liquor hard.’ She nodded, nonplussed. I took nothing away from that at all. ‘I believe you have use of my services.’
‘Yes,’ she stammered, almost as if she forgot why she came in here, ‘It’s my- husband. I have reason to believe he’s having… extra marital affairs.’
‘You’ll have to give me a bit more than that.’
‘I’ve seen him with a woman who’s meant to be in his employ.’
‘You’re going to have to give me a lot more than that.’
‘Well you see, I understand my husband is a busy man. He often works long hours, late nights. However, he can’t give me any specifics on the deals he’s working on. He hasn’t been acting like he does when a big deal consumes his life either.’
‘What would indicate he’s been working on a big deal, usually?’
‘Well, if he lost, he’d come home in quite a huff, and would scale back to regular hours for the weeks after, until the next thing came along. If it worked out, he’d usually take me out somewhere to celebrate, and then bore me with all the details.’
‘So you aren’t getting the attention from the old man like you used to, and you jump to cheating?’ I asked. This is the thing people don’t get about this business- when a client comes in, you need to do almost everything you can to turn them away. You need to pick apart their story, call out all the most obvious outcomes, the ones they’re too afraid to admit to themselves. The most likely possibilities they want to ignore, and go off making stories in their heads to accommodate for. You need to cut their story into pieces and pull out all the plot holes. If you’re still convinced, that’s when you take the case.
Chase every conspiracy and sob story, and you’ll find a lot of disaffected husbands down at the pub, looking for a bit of quiet time away from the wife and kids. You’ll find wives who have lives outside caring for their husbands, much to the man’s surprise. Often in those cases, you find more than the client hoped for, and they get angry at you for delivering the truth. It takes a strange type to shoot the messenger that tells you you’re right.
‘He’s become so secretive and cagey recently. I ask him what he’s been working on and he can’t tell me, as if he’s just forgotten the last couple of hours.’
‘Now Ms. Wonder, you’ve heard of confidentiality agreements, right? They even include your most immediate family. What does your husband do?’
‘He runs his on financial firm. He’s worked a lot with the export industry in the past, and he’s recently expanded into managing some contracts over in California. He started with some water rights defence work for a group of farmers, then somehow managed to get the books of some movie types in LA.’
‘Funny place that California, such a large population- yet they all seem to know each other. Would you be able to describe his weekly routine to me?’ Ms. Wonder looked flustered at the question. The revelation your other half is more of an anomaly shouldn’t come from a private detective.
‘I- not exactly. Sorry, do you mind?’ Ms. Wonder reached into her handbag for a cigarette. She pulled out a purse and rifled through folded hundreds before plucking out a tightly rolled dart. It was a classic move, the type you pull to impress the girl working at your local bakery- a subtle way to make them think you’ve got more bread than they have behind the counter. Unfortunately for Ms. Wonder, I wasn’t interested in having a slice. She put the cigarette to her lips.
‘Here, let me.’ I said and reached over with my lighter. Ms. Wonder leaned forward, the only time I saw her break her perfect posture while sitting, and she sucked on the flame that nicotine straw. ‘Do you know anything about this woman? In what capacity she’s employed by your husband, how long they’ve known each other, whether she’s staying back to ‘work’ with him, too?’
‘I have my suspicions.’
‘This gumshoe needs something a bit more concrete to walk on.’
‘Well- I’m sorry if I’ve wasted your time.’ Ms. Wonder pushed back her chair to stand. I wasn’t going to take the case, but I’m all for healthy working relationships. I stood with her.
‘I’m sorry I can’t be of help to you at the moment, Ms. Wonder. Private detectives are more like billy carts than limousines, you need to give us a push before we can get going on our own.’ I followed her to the door, part hoping she’d turn around to talk to me, part hoping she’d keep going so I could watch her leave.
‘I certainly feel like I’ve been taken for a ride. What would it take, for you to pick up this case?’ She turned to me. I am an easy to please man, she looks great from both sides.
‘I need something a bit more than speculation- something… physical. The last thing I want to do is waste my time- and your money- confirming he’s a workaholic.’
‘Something physical. I’ll keep that in mind.’ Ms. Wonder said with her hand on the door.
‘Here, let me give you a card to contact me- if you come up with anything.’ I patted down my pockets. ‘That’s right- we don’t have any cards. This firm is pretty new, I’ve been in the business for a while, however.’
‘I have your contact details, Mr. Harrow. How do you think I came here to start with?’
‘That- is a solid gold point.’ Ms. Wonder opened the door and I caught my last look at Cleveland before she walked out of the foyer. Liz got up from her desk.
‘We’re not off to a great start, are we?’ Liz said as I stood in the doorway to my office.
‘That’s the sad paradox of this business.’ I said to her. ‘The less someone can tell us about their case, the more likely they need us. The less they tell us about their case, the more likely we are to pass.’
‘Aren’t you going to go chase her, then?’ Liz asked, gesturing towards the door. She was new to this game, bless her sweet soul.
‘I have a feeling that won’t be the last we hear from Ms. Wonder.’ I gesticulated, in part to Liz, part to myself.
As smooth as clockwork, I was right. 3AM to be exact, going off the clock at my bedside. I was rattled awake by my phone. I shuffled out of bed and managed to catch the clanging receiver before it hung up. ‘Hello?’ I said with a clogged throat and bloated tongue.
‘Mr. Harrow, I need you right now.’ It was Ms. Wonder- but I doubted it was one of those 3Am calls. ‘I have evidence- you can see for yourself. Come and meet me right now and you can catch them in the act. I hope I’m not disturbing you.’
‘You could have lead with that.’ I leaned on my phone. My knees felt more like hinges than stilts as I let the wall take my weight.
‘I know we didn’t get around to discussing rates, but I’m willing to pay whatever you charge right now. I’d never forgive myself if you missed this.’
‘Where are you?’ It was an exhale, a grunt, and a cough all at the same time.
‘I’m at our apartment, 506/113 South Of Main Street. Please Mr. Harrow, I need you here now.’
‘Give me 15 minutes. I can usually get across town in half an hour with without traffic, legally.’
‘Please Mr. Harrow, you need to be here now.’ And the line went dead. I reached for my clothes. A slug and a smoke were a quicker pick-me-up to conjure than a cup of coffee, so I took one of each to go instead.
I made my way, huffing and puffing up the stairs two at a time. There’s no attendant at this time of night, which made getting a lift to the fifth floor out of the question.
I skidded to Ms. Wonder’s door and followed through with a couple of sharp knocks. The cuff of my suit rattled against my thin wrist as I rapped against the door. ‘Ms. Wonder!’ I called as loud as the hour would allow- no response. I knocked again to much the same effect.
I nearly did my wrist opening the door- not because it was hard to open- but because there was no resistance at all. I cranked the handle to try force the lock and my hand flung off the door as my mis-directed effort blew it open with the gust of a light breeze.
The door wafted away from the jamb and I was met with the expanse of an uninhabited flat. Even in the dark I could tell it was lightly furnished, and had been that way for some time. The only light source came from an apartment in the adjacent building. It threw a yellow trapezoid of light across the loungeroom wall. I made another quiet call to Ms. Wonder and started to case the joint.
I didn’t expect to find her, but I felt some degree of a duty of care. She had come to my office earlier that day after all. I walked into the loungeroom proper and the only thing of interest was in the apartment next door.
The light came from the bedroom of the apartment one building over. In said bedroom was a woman, wearing intimates she would only show her most intimate of friends, who pushed a man, wearing the minimum required not to get arrested in public, onto a bed. The walls in the bedroom were a mustard colour that matched the light being thrown into the flat. Or maybe the walls were white and the light bulb was excessively yellow. The woman started to straddle the man and pour over him like hot wax, when I decided they should invest in some curtains.
I turned on my heel and did my best to remind myself I had a job to do. I went towards the bedroom to see if Ms. Wonder was in this voyeur’s paradise at all, and if so- she was in the wrong room. I seemed to have a lot of thoughts in the short walk to the bedroom. Devious thoughts entered my mind, like “why am I doing this?”, “I’m not even getting paid,” and “why did she tell me to go to an empty flat?”
The bedroom was the definition of austerity. A plain double bed flanked by two bedside tables, centred on the opposite wall to the door. I didn’t check any of the wardrobes, Ms. Wonder could have said if she wanted to play hide and seek.
I swear I was going to turn out of that room on my own accord. I was about to leave before those three muffled bangs echoed down the hall. In a hurried scuffle back to the loungeroom, I saw the scene in the neighbouring apartment had taken on a different tone. A small, narrow man wearing all black, including beret and sunglasses, was now in the room, but not to join in. The woman was standing, screaming, wearing even less than she had before. The first man lay on the bed, three extra holes in him than when I last saw. The man in black held a smoking .38 in his hand, the kind you could get from anywhere.
I decided to leave the room- the flat- the building. I decided my being there had nothing to do with the apartment one over. I decided Ms. Wonder must have made a mistake, called me to the wrong address. I decided no one in the neighbouring apartment knew I was there either, nor did they see me in that window. I had decided.
I went home to go back to bed, and to wait for this to have never happened.