Some stories are shorter to tell than smoking a ciggarette.
Heres one: man calls me sobbing a story. Says hes in a bad way. Cant find her he says. Thinks shes cheating. His wife. Even bought himself a gun. Forty-Five Caliber Six-Shot. So predictable. They pay for power they cant control. Any guesses who youll use it on I asked. Same story. Best buddy from local bars. Grease monkey. Named Evan or Ivan or some damned name. Can you find her? They always assume there is something to find out. Someone worth finding out about. What price theyre willing to put on a worthy person is what I want to know. What I want to know is the amount theyll pay for a person. If she wants nothing to do with him he will pay anything. Any number within or without reason. Still I must ask why does he bother her —and me? And the answers are obvious. Love. Money. What it comes down to mostly for me and most. So I agree.
Two weeks later turns out shes been shacked up in some hellhole hotel off Highway Five with his best buddy and the best bar-buddy blows his brains out in the bathroom for a reason nobody knows because he didnt leave a suicide note and the (ex)wife is catatonic so shes rushed to a hospital with a soft blue blanket around her shoulders and her husband shows up with a manila envelope and hands it over to me, same way as the story goes to him. He gives me his gun, guiltily, sobbing again. I left the hospital lobby a thousand bucks richer. Him poorer, with or without those truths he so wanted. He certainly paid dearly for them. That was the last of the affair. Don’t know if he got her in the end or what end he came to.
Seems the old stories were of more interest. The last generations. Embellished, sure. Each private investigator tells their story as if it were a grecian tragedy. With few truths to tell, insofar as there are any truths told at all.
Thats what got me into the business. Half-true stories. Stories ranging from gangs busted up and brought to court to the Shine-addict kids who bought from them then went mad. So some folks said. Where to place blame. Figuring fictional truths from fact fascinated me. Like a game.
Sometimes I got luck with stories like that. Slipped inside a story and added my name. Afterwards I whiteout where all my name was. Subtract myself from the story as easily as I entered into it. As a shadowing spy is the private-eye. Sometimes you see yourself in the story, but as at a birds-eye-view. You hover above. We private detectives call it dissociation. Because you can’t keep any association with criminal worlds for long. And if you do, you lose some of your selves. Thats true.
But other times you enter into stories you dont belong. Stories set before you begin to write yourself into them. Stories that change your character from the get-go. When that happens you dont get any easy entry. When that happens there arent any easy exits either. Inescapable lies.
Ive often thought the hardboiled bit players a bit bland.
My old boss Mr. Shelby bought that reputation, really he did. Had a placard made. Said The School of Private Investigatory Arts. Paid dearly for it. Just so people might respect his position. Probably purchased the repute because he never said or did much worth remembering, really.
Except, he used to say, Sometimes it seem(ed) [he had] needles on [his] mind.
That line used to interest me. When I started out. I never knew what those needles were really, until recently. Needles of the mind say you are into something somewhere you do not belong.
Never asked him what he meant by that. But now I know its a vague feeling. Like shadowing yourself down a dark street. The brain shadowboxing itself. I suppose those needles were why Shelby O’Hara retired. Besides his being eighty years old and unable to lift a pen due to cerebral palsy. And his wife, who was always hounding him. A lot hounded him. But he never howled back.
Shell said he wanted To get outta this damned city and suntan somewhere. Find a crimeless paradise.
I dont think he ever will.
When Shelby retired the sleuth-life he left a two-by-two cardboard box. Every file, every past case, a cliché green desklamp, his penpad, and a Pistol Pete Maravich Celtics bobblehead, left inside. What could it tell of him. Not even I could paint the full portrait.
Looking inside the box I could see the better or worse fifty years of his life as a hired detective. Dont think I would want that for myself. Everything Ive ever done in a six-squarefoot box. But as a man and mentor Mr. O’Hara wasnt much. Dont know what he taught, if ever he even tried. But he bought the shop outright with his fathers life insurance and saved the storefront for someone like me. For that Im gracious. If he mightve been seen as a father, I mightve been seen as his son. Though there isnt a resemblance.
He bragged about me. What a fine prying eye I’d become.
Anyhow, when I was looking at the paperclipped stack of lemon paper in his retirement box, I came across an old file. The one unsolved file amongst so many uninteresting cases. A homicide. One which was unfamiliar to me. One which I wished to assume unsolved. Hoping some mystery might make my next week without Mr. Shelby of some interest. At the beginning of the report there was a note in Shelby’s scribbling, done with thick red expo marker on the crinkled margins:
THEY CALL HER CRAZY.
I hadnt a case in eight days. The last was as simple a case of catkilling as catkilling can be. By way of strangulation. This withered woman collected cats, so-to-speak. Set catfood outside so theyd come to her wraparound stoop. She stole them, strangled them, then lived on the next litter awhile. Even got her grandson to cover her tracks. Boy killed the last litter in the woods with a shotgun. Said she was doing a social service. Called the murderings mercy killings. Mercy.
I see cases like that. Crimes for causes justifiable. People with power in hands they have to place.
Yet not all are. Motivated. Some crimes arent caused by passion. Some crimes arent for love or money. Some crimes arent caused by any one thing. Some crimes miss an absolute motive. Most of the time I cant say for sure of some crimes. Most of the time they never seem to have an end.
Maybe thats the truest mystery. Maybe thats what makes mystery. To explain the unexplainable.
What loose ends.
What makes me continue to catch criminals never seemed so mysterious. It was a simple matter. I could never stand the not-knowing. I continued to care because I believed evil is as water for roots as circumstance is for crime. The bark seems strong but the trunk is hollowed black and decayed.
This case felt that way. Clean polish on a closed case. But what was inside the case, I wondered.
So I took Mr. Shelby’s two-by-two cardboard box to Charlie’s café on the corner to contemplate his old case over coffee. On the surface it seemed solved. But if anyone might remember, it would be the clientele at Charlie’s café. They might know if it were a cold case becoming hot once more.
Charlie’s café was where Mr. Shelby used to sit and smoke cigars and drink coffee pouring over old pages. Processing his life, as it seemed to be to me back in my earlier PI days. Used to write his memoirs until his memory was shot. Caught a stray bullet at a shootout, out in Toewakoe County.
After that he left his life be. What was left. Mostly to me.
As I sat sipping coffee and smoking a ciggarette at Charlie’s café on the corner of our lot I removed the contents of his box and set them on the tabletop. The bobblehead bouncing.
Charlie looked at me and asked what it all was.
I told him it was Shelby’s stuff.
He asked if it was important. Charlie was always too interested in what was going on with our spylife. But I figured he mustve known something. Something notable. Overheard some smalltalk amongst O’Hara’s cardmates who drove in drunk Saturday nights to shoot shit-talk like long ago days. Some old truths Shelby wouldnt trust me with.
Yah, he scrubbed the copper countertop.
Did Shelby ever mention this woman? Delia Boudreaux.
Delia was it. Delia. He spoke slowly then clacked his tongue to test his memory.
Accused and convicted for murdering her mother.
Yas. Why. That mustve been… Hmm. Cant quite recall.
But you do remember something.
Yas yas yas. That as Ninety-One. No. Uh. Ninety-Three. Yas. Musta been. Charlie chugged smokeclouds on his cigar and looked outside at the empty lot and overpass. The windows were very large but obscured by smoke and fog from that steamy midnight highway.
It as Ninety-Three, said an old stranger sat at the corner.
Yas. Think Bill’s right at that.
Bill said I am right Charl. Cept when I aint a course.
Do you remember Shelby saying anything about the girl. Anything at all about her.
Well. At that I might. See Shell lived over Eastside Cooley. Might say theyse neighbors, with the Boudreauxs, if I remember rightly. Ol’ Mr. Shelby as schoolmates with Missy Boudreaux. Before they even built at Cooley West.
Do you think Shelby was concerned about whether she was really innocent. The girl. Delia.
Dont reckon as Id remember. Been a long damned time. Why dont you just ask ol’ Shell?
His wife doesnt want him anywhere near work. Neither do I. He has enough on his mind.
Heh, Dory wouldnt want im workin, Charlie laughed, never did. Neithe none of us do dontcha know. Strangest thing. Say Bill, dyou member anythin. Bout Missys little lady.
Bill laid down the newspaper he was reading and glanced up puffing smoke. Member what.
You werent Shelby’s schoolmate when yall was growin up, but you knew Missy Boudreauxs husband didnt ye? Went the same school. Yah. Now what was is firs name? Clyde? Clarence? Cleh-something.
Clement. Though we just called im Clem back then.
What happen to im?
How in ell should I know Charl. Moved on outta Cooley way backwhen.
I asked Bill, Bill what can you remember of Mr. Boudreaux? Mr. Clement.
Circus character. Inna motorcylces when we was kids. Married Missy. Then that was the end of im, fars I knew him.
Did he die?
Wouldnt know to tell. Jusorta done dissapeared.
Any idea where I would find him if I were to look.
Might get to askin is daughter. She aint goin nowhere anytime soon. Bill returned to his paper.
I thought about that. Twenty years. Time changes all.
Whole thing seemed strangern hell I did believe, Charlie said, That I did.
Thanks for your time Charlie. You too Bill. Bill grumbled behind a big Cooley County Courier he snapped out. He shook the end of his cigar into an ashtray and muttered something.
Preciate it, said Charlie, At our age we got less time to lose than you. And its precious.
I returned to my office on the opposite corner of the lot to read the report. I sat at my desk looking at Mr. O’ Haras empty adjacent space and pulled out a ciggarette and began scanning his articled account under the smoky particle light of his green lamp.
I almost laughed at the first line, it being very unprofessional and very unlike the Shelby I knew.
Firs thing I thought were she were very beautiful but if it werent for her bein a parapalegic.
I knowed she were the daughter of Missy Boudreaux. Had her mamas beauty. But not her long legs. Missy were a basketball player at Cooley High.
Her daughter, Ms. Delia Boudreaux, seemed a basket.
She said she had a case for me if I might want to look at it. Told her sure on the condition she pay me cash up front. Asked me if I knew her mother. Smart girl. Tryin to use that connection against my better judgements. Told her one hundred dollars an hour. Flat. If an hour it were to be.
Purty girl dug through her purse and presented me a hundred dollar. One one hundred dollar bill. She didnt look the type to be rollin in dough you know so I asked How you come into this kinda cash kid?
She wouldnt answer me. Not directly at first. Then she said her father. Saw right what this business was about to be about. Funny tension in her eyes, like someone whose been so scared before theyve lost the feeling of fear but it stays there, ear to ear, you mightve said. Some fear of her family I would wager. Her father.
Anyway, I asked her what else she could tell me. Not tryin to let er know what all I might knew.
She said They called her crazy.
Not everyone. Not me, I said.
Thats only cuz Im payin ya not to think so.
She were right. She wheeled over to my side of the desk slow and sorta seductively if the way one wheelchairs could be called seductive and showed me her hands held her palms right out she did and told me to lay mine own on atop like so so I did innerested in what she was gettin at. She had hands like a wrestler. Big and broad an as powerful as mine.
Turned each a my fingers to and fro squeezin em on occasion then ran her forefinger over my plamcreases and pursed her lips and eyes at the same time sif some visiond jus come to her. She told me to follow this fateline on my hand with my eyes even though she werent lookin and I did. She said I’d carry everything on for longer than needed be.
What dyou mean, I asked. She opened her eyes. Real close to my face then. My palms were sweaty as hell and I took em back from her. My head started to hurtin real awful.
This line on your hand, she said, ‘ll tell ya everythin youve ever gained to lose.
I looked at the line. Then at her. I couldnt see what she meant. But I knew then I didnt jus want her money. Moren the money I wanted to know what sorta mess Missy Boudreauxs little girl had been brought inta. All the sudden it seemed I got like these little needles borin inna my brain. Took my hands and face away from her and told her to leave.
Will you help me.
Mayam, I said, I dont even know how to begin doin such a thing.
I may have an answer, she said, like it became another question.
My Pas comin into town to pick me up. Two days from now Ill be in the Cooley Carnival. Come and see me. If we cant afford anymore time I understand. Then she wheeled out. I looked at my hand.
I made up my mind to go, though it felt dumbern hell.
A chunk of our life is spent asleep. Our mind processing what we rarely perceive.
I slept that night in my office since my apartment was fumigated from an insect infestation. My dreams ran amok with ants and centipedes crawling over my skin. My body half above the floorboards. The other half in foundation. What was my mind trying to tell without palpability.
I fell asleep with Shelbys file on Delia out on the desk. When daylight awoke me I went to Charlies for a coffee. Charlie wasnt there. His wife Catherine was behind the counter with a younger broad bending her elbows and checking the menu for breakfast food.
Hello to you Detective. Good mornin. Take you a seat anywhere.
I seated one over from the lady sitting there with her laminated menu.
Anything look good, Catherine asked.
Yes. I think. Eggs and french toast, she said.
Yes please mayam.
You wanna coffee too Detective?
Call me Carl, please Catherine. And yes. Catherine left and I leaned over. Excuse me, I asked the young lady. Have you a light by chance. She smirked, setting her phone down and digging through her purse than flicked a BIC and lit the smoke for me. She smiled at me through a smokecloud.
Are you really a Detective.
Thanks, I said, dragging the smoke. Why do you ask.
I dont know.
Dont I look like one.
Maybe. I always thought detectives were older.
True. Detectives dont live long. Most of us dont.
She turned to her phone and flicked it to a message I guess to begin ending our conversation.
Catherine brought coffee cups and set one in front of me and filled it then filled the young ladies as well.
Any food darlin? Cat asked me.
Eggs. Overmedium please. Charlie in this morning.
No. Hes still asleep. The lousy bum, she laughed. By the way how is Mr. O’Hara.
Still retired, so I imagine hes doing well.
Guess thats about right. You know I meant to ask you whether you were still taking any new cases. If theres time.
No reason. Figured you woulda closed awhile with Mr. O’Hara gone. At least for the time being.
The young lady looked up then returned to her phone.
Im running through an old case actually. A Ms. Delia Boudreaux.
Oh. That woman. What a mad mess.
Not save some smalltalk.
Smalltalk can be very revealing.
I suppose so. Gimme a moment.
Catherine went to go fetch our food.
I asked the young lady with the almond skin what she was reading.
Kid died from a car accident this morning. Just twenty years old.
Hit by a drunk driver.
No. Was drunk driving.
Doesnt sound like an accident, I said.
You think he meant to go off the road into a ditch at ninety miles an hour and hit a tree stump. I just dont think so.
Didnt say so. But if you get behind the wheel drunk as a skunk with your foot to the pedal at ninety late at night then youre ensuring your self an accident. Thats all.
Maybe. That seems a stiff view of things though.
Maybe it is.
Cat returned with our food and we three remained silent as the young lady and I ate our eggs. Excuse me mayam asked the woman.
Did you happen to see my keys anywhere.
I thought to ask if shed had an accident.
No darlin. I aint seen any keys.
Couldve swore I set them on the counter. She checked under the menu and next to the saltshaker.
They werent on the counter when I walked in, I said.
Try retracing your steps sweetie, Catherine said. Maybe the detective can help you, she winked. I smiled at the lady but she was digging through her purse, spilling the contents atop the counter. No keys jangled out.
Did you perhaps lock them in your car?
She looked up at me sourly. But then exhaled with relief. Oh my God. I must have. Excuse me I will be back in a moment. She got up leaving her purse as assurance and went to her Chevy Impala in the lot and looked inside. We were watching her do so.
She smiled and pointed inside then her smile changed as she returned inside and said Yeah. I locked them inside.
I can get them out, I offered.
Thank you. I would really appreciate it. But how.
Just have to break your windshield.
I left and got an old wirehanger from my office and went to her car and slipped it through the windowcrease and lowered the hook to the lock and opened the car and located her keys on the seatcushion and took them inside to her.
There you are.
Are you sure youre a detective.
My eggs and coffee were cold. I looked at Cat smirking from the back, winking again.
If you ever need to fish your keys out again call me and Ill catch them. I left my number on a napkin and left out leaving a ten dollar bill on the counter and returned to my office to read Delias case.
Looking outside and inside the window I realized how I looked like hell. Hairs out of order.
No wonder the woman asked whether I was a detective. I looked a crook. I wondered whether shed call. But I dont believe in accidents anymore if I ever did. Some stories you cant be sure of ever ending. Even one seemingly set in stone. Ive said there are no such things as coincidences. But I dont believe that. Every thing living coincides with another. Even things from farthest pasts.
I read the report to pass the time till she might call.
Friday night was Cooley Carnival. I went. Though why I went I wouldnt know yet to bet. As freelance as it gets. She hadnt anymore money. Not offered outright at least. And I hadnt a clue as to what crazy sorta thing this Delia Boudreaux girl was gettin me into. She had me on a string.
I noticed an old friend of mine named Frank workin the ticketstand and he got me in for free because I knew somethin bout him that I wont say. Made promises. He watched me walk inside wonderin whether Id spill his beans. But I didnt. I don’t. Good detectives know when to let something lie silent.
The front end of the Carnival smelt like shit and popcorn. On one end there were cattle an pigs an some guy granted a cow a bow and then they blowed its brains out out back somewheres an then a pig got a big blue bow and it knowed what was in store and started squealin and they slit its throat into a big aluminum washbucket holding its hindlegs to let it bleedout. On the otherside were kids cradling big bags of popcorn, hotdogs, an greasy hamburgers.
There was this black fella sittin on a stone with a lone gold tooth playin a wirestring with a saw and it sounded terrible. Id seen him downtown a time or two. Named Topaz. His voice was like an old ship grindin against the dock as it come into harbor. Terrible. Didnt know the tunes.
A dwarf in drag and black face called BoJambo announced BoJambo was announcing the next show and pointed that-a-way with a white wolf-handled cane. I followed folks towards this big steel contraption in the shape of a ball and a clowns head atop with smoke exiting through a metal cigar in its mouth. It were the Mangy Zany Motorcyclists and their Ball of Death. These two boys on bikes shaped like hogs with headlight apples in their mouths entered the ball and began their engines kickin off for the walls goin round-n-round as fire spit out after them huge wheels and soon they were suspended in air and fire goin round-n-round until I got too dizzy to stay.
One of the clowns was Clement Boudreaux.
He was the next showsman as well. In this jailer clown outfit with a ball-and-chain connected to those moon-shaped stagelights.
Clement came stumbledrunk upon this stage and swigged some gas then started to blow fire from a torch he held out in a big column out over the crowd. He swallowed a sword. He wore that clown costume that looked like itd been bred by a motorcyclist, a convict, and a three-armed medieval knight. Spikes n strange colors.
Then some small stagehands in corn hats pulled out a tall and wide oak-wooden box.
A woman wheeled out of it. Delia Boudreaux. She bowed in her chair then fell out of it onto her fingers and stood upsidedown walking on hands to the edge of the stage in a bright blue jumpsuit that really showed her rearend and by the end of her stunt she was back in the box and her Pa come to it and spoke some words amidst the clapter.
Watch as I make my daughter Delia dissapear.
Delia was inside and said Ready Pa.
First I must speak the magic words. But the magic words just sounded like some of the gibberish you might hear from one of them deviltongued snake handlers then the door was shut and Delia did dissapear though probably below stage because when they opened it she were gone somewhere else and everyone applauded. Clement stepped forward and said almost eyes exact to me Please find her here. Thankyou.
Thats exactly what I intended to do.
Went next to one of them halls of mirrors and made funny faces at myself and saw myself multiplied and my head started to hurtin so I wanted to leave but I couldnt and kept thinkin if I didnt get outta the damned place itd consume me and the Shelby as I knew myselfd dissapear just as Delia Boudreaux did and then I was no moren a kid lookin back at my future. I yelled and a fat guy in a girdle came and got me under my arms like barbells and drug me out. Felt drugged.
The strong man kept sayin Stop squirming man.
When he tossed me out by my belt it was like meetin myself again on the cold concrete of the Carnival grounds. This mean little bulldog-faced barkee brought me a bottle of some strange liquor I aint never seen afore and said there was an answer at the end of the bottle. I didnt drink it immediately but went to a bench looking at men on stilts dressed as giraffes walkin around then figured what the hell and upended the tiny bottle in one long gulp. Green as moss, texture so.
Drink was hot as a sulfur spring. Tasted of turpentine.
Suddenly Delia appeared by the bench in her chair with a weird wearyin white light around her blue jumpsuit and asked if Everything Id ever gained was lost to me now.
I looked at her. I was drunk. She seemed split into two. What. That was all I could ask. What. I was too weak to speak. The words and world sort of tumbled out.
Did deliverance unto death come upon you as any thing.
Ask em. Meant ask me again but I couldnt talk well enough to tell. Like my lips were disconnected from a brain.
When you walked the mirrorhall did the man you thought you were dissapear there. Did you see yourself elsewhere.
I didnt say no but shook my head and wrung my hands. The fateline felt stung and fingers froze hard as ice and then the needles pricked my brain in a band and I felt pulled up out of myself with pain and tried to focus on her face so shimmery and pretty as if her pulse quickened mine. She laid a hand on my shoulder. As cool clean water it were.
My tongue returned to me. What the helld I drink Delia.
I dont know.
There were no answers at the drinks end. Why am I here.
So you could see what sort of thing is coming.
What sorta thing is comin.
To tell you that I would lie.
Feel funny. Sorta sick, I said. But just funny yet. Outright hilarious. It sounded like drunken me.
So does my Pa. But clowns at least have an excuse.
She laughed and laid a hand on me as I slunk on the bench drunk asleep. Passed out to a flat black. When I awoke it was two in the mornin and Frank was pressin a finger into my cheek and askin Youokay Shelby. Mista O’Hara.
I went for a burger from Cold Creek in downtown Cooley, a place Shelby and I frequented.
Ten years ago we were in the woods late at night. We got burgers and beers and brought them to this old farm road and ate them from the wrappings off the hood of O’Hara’s car. We lit a lantern then walked into the wood along a long lane of dead brush and thickets.
Asked Shelby what we were doin out in Providence.
Technically we’re on the dividin line of Providence and Cooley.
We came to a clearing. There was a dead dog.
Did you know this would be out here.
No. Justa hunch. I had a feeling. Get a fire ready.
We’re gonna bury it.
Burn it you mean.
Winds’ll take care to bury it where it belongs.
I made a fire stacking kindling near the dog’s belly and brought bigger logs and began to stoke the fire with my foot then laid long dead trunks over and got my gloves on and helped O’Hara lay the dog across the coals and watched the fur turn from orange to black and muscle and tissue burn. What was left was the bones but those too were burned.
We never discussed that night. It felt an end to a story. I think Shelby thought about the dog sometimes as he stoked a chimneyfire at his home. Sat in his old green recliner in the reading room prodding the wood with a deadset expression. He never said anything those nights. He just stoked the fire. Shadows shook upon the walls with Shelby’s low sorrow. I dont know what he ever saw in a fire.
Guess I got the feeling that Delia was dead. Though she wasnt. She was just jailed. Saw smoke that mornin over the roofs. Went for a walk. Fireman flinging foam on the house that fell on itself. Knew what evil I was supposed to see coming. Clement set fire to the home. But who would believe that. All the evidence pointed to Delia. What evidence. Evidently I’d missed something. Delia didnt need me to know. Missy Boudreaux was dead.
Delia was locked up.
Nobody knew where Clement rode off to. That was just the end of it. Nobody would ask me to come and claim anything in Delias defense. What would I say even. All ends.
Week later I went to see Delia. Course her lawyer was there. Said I had two minutes flat. We spoke through the glass. She smiled. Asked her what it was caused someone to burn Missy Boudreaux. I know it werent you.
Delia said she didnt die.
The flames burnt up most of her body but they found your mother. What was left. Was it your Pa who done it.
Whatve you been hidin Delia.
Nothing. Not from you.
You asked me would I help you.
And you will. Or someone will.
That was the end of the file. So far as I knew Delia fell into obscurity in Cooley County Jail. But when I called they said theyd never heard of her. I repeated the name. Delia Boudreaux. Check the register.
We have no record of that name.
So your saying she just dissapeared.
Im not saying that sir. You are. I never heard of her.
Sir. Weve got real problems to worry about. If I can get your name and telephone number I can have someone call you back. What is your name.
No thanks. I hung up.
I called Shelby next. His wife answered.
Is Shelby there.
May I speak to him.
Concerning what Carl.
An old case.
Thats what I said.
Why havent I heard.
You just did. He just did.
Are you messing with me mayam.
Hes still sat by the fireside. Im lookin right at im.
Is that all there is to it.
Dory hung up. She didnt want Shelby working anymore.