Detective Story

You are sitting in your office, which is falling apart. Everything around you is falling apart. They are renovating a large part of your building, and there are flakes of paint and peeling plaster in your coffee cup most afternoons. Not that you ever drink coffee. You’re a whiskey fiend, when you’re not on the job, which is most of the time. When you are on the job, your caffeine intake is absurdly high and you go days without food or sleep. Yours is an unhealthy profession, which means it is unpredictable and exciting, or was until very recently.

Lately, things have been different. You used to think that everyone surprised you from time to time. Everyone was different, had shameful secrets and private pains, distinct as fingerprints. But more and more, everyone seems the same, driven by self-interest, held hostage by small sins. There are types of people, certainly. The man who cheats on his wife; the woman who cheats on her husband; the lowly junkie; the petty thief; the hustler; the fraudster; the sophisticated killer.

Not that you are any better, sitting with your feet on your desk, catching paint flakes in your coffee cup. You can’t smoke in your office anymore, which is a problem. There aren’t many things you like to do, but you like to smoke cigarettes – lots of them – and you aren’t about to start apologizing for your habits, even the dirty ones. Does that make you a certain type of person?

When you are sitting at your desk, clientless and not yet drunk, listening to the workmen pull down walls and put up scaffolding, to the gang of painters in the hallway, you are given to flights of fancy, even self-pity. It passes the time. Self-pity is a dirty habit, like smoking. Unlike smoking, it is permissible to feel self-pity in public places. Self-pity will no doubt be outlawed sooner or later but, until that time, you are determined to indulge in it.

But today you have better things to do. There is a message on your telephone: the red light is flashing. You pick up the receiver and hear a woman’s voice, husky and anxious, urgent even. It is a long time since you listened to another person’s voice. You have forgotten how a human voice sounds different from, for example, a chair scraping across a bare floor or the rhythmic hustle of an overland train.

Human voices sound better, warmer, even when they are telling you something that you do not want to hear. Your rent is two months overdue. Go away. There is someone else. You will never work in this town again. These are some things that you do not ever want to hear, and yet you have heard them over and over.

There is an intimacy in strangers’ voices, which may be why you got into this job in the first place. Or it may be because you weren’t qualified to do anything else. You probably should have finished college, for example. You probably should have married when you had the chance, invested what little money you ever earned, bought a house in the suburbs or an apartment in a polite part of town, learned to eat healthier, to drink less and exercise more and to –

Instead you became a private investigator, for reasons that have long since become obscure. A mystery, really, one of many.

‘My name is Gemma Walters,’ the telephone message says. ‘I found your name in the book. I need you to do a job for me. I am staying at the Winchester Hotel. I don’t have a phone, you see. I will be here all day. Perhaps you could come down and we can talk. I’ll explain more when we meet. Please, it’s imperative that I meet with you.’

You have forgotten what desperation sounds like in others, know it only from your own silences, your reluctance to speak, to act.

You glance at your watch. It is eleven-fifteen in the morning. You could drive down to the Winchester Hotel, meet this woman, hear her out.

But you’re comfortable sitting at your desk, with your feet up, watching the paint flakes gather in your coffee cup. You were planning an early afternoon nap, perhaps a drag from your flask. You have an office ritual, and it does not include leaving the building.

Do you really need the exhaustion of another job? You’re not as young or as slim as you used to be, and besides it’s late November and raining heavily most of the time.

If you decide to go see Gemma Walters at the Winchester hotel, click here.

If you prefer to stay in your office, click here.

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