By Laird Hunt
Coffee House Press
from "Green Metal Door"
This occurred quite some time ago, long before the events I have set down elsewhere, long before, at any rate, most of them. During that period I was working, principally, in a firm of transaction specialists. I say "principally" because, at the suggestion of a colleague, I had taken on some outside work as an investigator of sorts, setting up shop, as I did so, in an office on the fourth floor of a building on the far side of town. It was not, at the beginning, particularly nice, this office. It was unsettlingly run-down, with cracked paint and exposed pipes and stacks of newspapers and a huge green sofa with a large stain on one of its arms, and it looked out onto a courtyard into which, clearly, several decades of garbage had been dumped. Still, even though at the beginning it wasn't nice, it did have a sort of anteroom where illustrations could be hung and clients could wait and where a secretary, this was the best part of all, could sit, and it had two of those terrific semitransparent plateglass doors. Once I was settled, I would stand, in fact, for considerable periods of time beside those doors—one leading out into the corridor, the other mediating between my office and the waiting room—considering, as a part of my self-imposed and, admittedly, desultory training, any number of deductive intricacies.
Often, as I stood there, my secretary would bring me small snacks.
Yo, Boss, here's another snack, he would say.
In short, I had great hopes.
The above-mentioned colleague from the transactions firm helped me rent the office.
Sport, he said. This has got to be the place.
It was. I sat down. I stood. I went over and looked at my secretary. He looked at me. I had not seen his teeth when I engaged him. I went back and sat down. Several days went by like this, exactly like this. Then one afternoon there was a knock on the door.
Send him/her in, I said.
Incidentally, when I speak of several days, I am not referring to consecutive days. Most of my time, of course, was still spent at the transactions firm or in the field, which should be taken to mean any place—dock or alley or social club—where business was conducted outside the firm's premises. The night before the afternoon of the knock on the door—there is someone knocking, Boss, my secretary excitedly said—I had been in all of those places, variously in company and alone, and have to confess that, as the events I propose to relate began, I was feeling somewhat the worse for wear, somewhat tired, not quite right. I was thinking of just that when my secretary put his head through the door of my office and said, there is someone knocking, and I said, so answer it.
The individual who came into my office and stood before me looked vaguely familiar. She had long blond hair that did a lot with the dim, yellow light dripping down from the ceiling, and she was wearing a brown trench coat that didn't do much to hide her attributes, of which, let me tell you, there were plenty.
Evening, she said.
Evening? I thought. I looked at my watch. It was evening, well into it. I had been under the impression, as I indicated above, that we were still dealing with the afternoon.
Come in, sit down, I said. But looking up, I saw that she had already come in, had already sat down. Clearly, something was off. I was off. I made a note to myself toget friendly with some food and take a break.
I still have that note. It is written in that extraordinarily faint, barely determined hand, that was to characterize all of my attempts at note-taking over the coming days and weeks, and that was to contribute, increasingly, along with other factors, to my inability to make consistent sense of the evidence that was put before me.
Eat burger then sleep, the note reads.
So simple. If only.
I smiled at her.
She smiled back.
Very different story from the one I got when my secretary flashed his choppers, which looked like they'd been soaked in caramel every night for many years.
My own teeth, I don't mind informing you, were in excellent condition in those days, as were many other aspects of my person. My male colleagues at the transactions firm liked me tremendously and even went so far as to call me Champ and Sport. It will come as no surprise then that I was far from being unpopular with certain female individuals, and that I even had one or two special friends.
How can I help you? I said.
Don't you know who I am? she said.
Why do you ask?
Because that's a very, very blank look on your face.
Of course I know who you are.
Good. What have you learned?
Her hair and the light were collaborating even more nicely now that she was sitting down, and I have to say I had a hard time keeping my eyes off it. Her eyes, too, were worth noting—they were a very pale gray…
Pale blue, she said. It must be the light—in a more robust light they are clearly blue. But thank you for noticing.
Did you, ahem, just say something? I said.
I asked you if you had followed him, hello, as per our agreement.
Of course I did, I said.
And I learned some very interesting things.
After a moment, I did so. I told her that at approximately 5 p.m. the previous evening I had followed him out of his office on the west side and had trailed him across town. Subject had walked briskly, one might even say, without overpresumption, purposefully.
He is purposeful.
Yes, I could see that.
On the way across town, Subject had stopped four times. Once for a chocolate bar at a newsstand; once for a cake of heavy-duty soap at a hardware store; once outside the window of a gift shop; once in an alley where he knocked twice on a green metal door, after which I momentarily lost sight of him.
Lost sight of him how? Did he go in the door? Did someone answer?
I'm not sure.
At this juncture, she leaned forward and looked at me with a curious expression.
Incidentally, that's quite a bruise, she said.
It was. I had checked it several times over the course of the afternoon in the mirror that hung next to my desk. The bruise, above my right temple, had made its way through several colors, and now—I took a quick look— seemed to have settled into a deep violet ringed with indigo and brown.
How did you get it?
I'm not sure.
You don't seem to be sure about a lot of things.
This was definitely true, but I decided not to answer. Instead, I just nodded, noncommittally, and smiled.
She asked me if I had taken any aspirin.
I said I had.
So you must have lost him after that.
After he knocked twice on the green metal door.
The funny thing is I didn't, I said. It's true that he got away from me for a minute or two, but I caught up with him just as he was entering a private residence on the east side.
Who lives there?
I gave her the name.
So that's it.
This was not put as a question and I did not treat it like one. My assignment, and I suddenly found I remembered it all, had been to follow the individual and to provide my client with a name. I had done so. She was satisfied, and I was satisfied and, once she had paid me the outstanding portion of my fee, we would leave it at that. Clearly, as one thinks to one's self, I had a future in this business, and would soon enough find myself in a position to reduce my hours at the transactions firm. While it was true that I would miss certain aspects of the work, there was no doubt in my mind that brighter things lay in store for me as an investigator, and I can say with all surety that I was not wrong.
I couldn't be wrong.