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Date: Friday, October 30, 2009
From: Derek Sonderfan
To: William Hickey
Subject: Double, Double, Toil and Urkel: Why Jaleel White Made a TERRIBLE Macbeth
It was a Thursday at 8:30 when the dame walked into my office. I could tell by looking at her that something wasn’t right. I stole the cigarette from my mouth and tapped the ash out in my Word Girl ashtray. It was one drag from finished, but if there’s one thing this job taught me, it’s that nothing ever gets done completely. The cigarette, though, had other plans. It surrendered its final ember and choked itself dry. That didn’t bode well. Things always had a way of boding very poorly on Thursdays.
From under my brim, I couldn’t see the dame’s face well, but her audible sniveling told me everything I’d need to know about her face – it weren’t pretty no more. Once, maybe. She might have been a seven – those gams might have looked more like a section of colonnade and less like the chipped pilasters I saw before me. But time had weathered her. I could tell without a second thought that this dame had a tall order for me, and one I probably wouldn’t have the time to fill. Without invitation, she reached out and touched my placard.
“Theodore Bulbous, Private Investigator, I presume?”
I’d already had enough of her. Dames like her are a dime a dozen in domes, I deemed, and I had a few dozen already in my refrigerator. Unless I was confusing her with eggs. It’d been a long week. I sucked at my teeth a bit, something I had become accustomed to when my cigarettes decided to go out on their own and things were boding all over the place.
“What do you want?”
She took the extinguished cigarette from my ashtray and lit it back up, using what I could only assume was a stick and flint, judging by how long she took. It was as if I was the first human contact she’d had in years, and she knew it would soon be coming to a close – grabbing onto whatever small comfort she could find before it was too late. She was forward, I’ll give her that. But she seemed defeated already; stress had pressed on her like a balustrade with a fat kid sliding down it, rapidly approaching the newel. Then with unnecessary aplomb that bordered on cockiness, she extinguished the cigarette. Right on Captain Huggy Face’s face. She was certainly going to be heard.
“Are you Bulbous?”
“Depends on if my wife made her stuffed shells.”
Sure it was a stock answer, but I wasn’t in the mood to hear her plebian pleas. People in this town, see, they need me all the time. ‘Cause I’m the best there is. But I don’t work for chicken feed, and I could tell that’s what this dame had – chicken feed. Unless I’m confusing her with eggs again. She might have had it all, once. Now, all she had were questions, and I wasn’t much a fan of questions. I tugged at my hat in a way that, I’m absolutely sure, indicated that I would like her to turn her shoulders, that looked like withered cornice, and march out of my office. She was not as adept as I’d hoped at picking up my less-than-subtle overtones.
“I want you to find the Theme-mail.”
I did a spit take, which was all the more impressive when you know I hadn’t a drink in my mouth at the time. I hadn’t drunk since the Portland Pleather Incident. I swore it off after that blot on my illustrious career. But there was a time and a place for everything. I reached under my hat and retrieved a flask, from which I took a long hearty pull of the fiery drink. It felt nervous as it eased its way down my esophagus. I placed the flask back and cast a long look at the dame, bobber and all.
“You’re wasting your time, lady. The Theme-mail is dead.”
She fixed her bosom in the way you fix a boxing fight, not in the way you fix a dog.
“That’s where I think you’re wrong, Teddy.”
Nobody’s called me Teddy since ’85, and only then they did it because they mistook me for a talking child’s toy. They didn’t make that same mistake when their tongue had fifty staples in it, I made sure of that. But I wasn’t about to take it out on this helpless dame, she didn’t know any better. The sorrow in her eyes was as heavy as rusticated stone.
“It’s as dead as disco.”
“I have strong reason to believe the Theme-mail is still alive, even if it isn’t at all well.”
She plopped a burgundy binder down on my desk, stirring up dirt that had become quite comfortable there since taking up residence mere weeks after I moved in. Where she pulled the binder from, I will never know as her slinky dress didn’t exactly include binder-sized pockets. The folds of her dress clung to her sides like ornate drapery masking a scuttle.
I knew exactly what this tome was – the legendary Collection of Theme-mails – 140 of them. It was an impressive manuscript composed over a dozen years. It had enough scripts to keep a B-rate actor set for any audition he might ever encounter, and probably even some recipes for lemon bisque. My lip twitched as I opened it; it happened whenever I opened something red. Meanwhile, she pulled a fresh cigarette from her brassiere, which was like a delicate Classical lattice. She lit it, the cigarette, reveling in a satisfying drag.
“What’s your point?”
“The Theme-mail is alive.”
“The Theme-mail was alive. If you ask me to find a dinosaur because you discovered a bone, that doesn’t mean I will dig in my backyard and find Rex. Peddle your little dead-end to someone who has a decade of their life to kill. And don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Seriously, it closes very fast. I gotta get a carpenter to look at it.”
I took the cigarette from out of her hands and extinguished it on my tongue. I had thought it would be an impressive exclamation point to my statement. In reality, it hurt like hell and tasted of old people’s furniture. She was duly unimpressed.
That’s when she plopped a briefcase on my desk. If it was a riddle from where she pulled the binder, it was an outright conundrum where she hid the briefcase. I opened it, resisting like hell the urge to swallow. An eerie stillness came from inside the briefcase, because money doesn’t move. Inside, there were enough Benjamins to garishly wallpaper a house in the
I’d been on some wild goose chases before. Somewhere along the line, I had developed the reputation, I always felt wrongly, of taking the odd jobs that no other investigators would take. But I got results. When I was asked to find Hoffa, not only did I find Jimmy, but I found his twin brother Samuel, and I found them both buried deep within the Earth’s mantle after following a hunch I had while eating beets. I’ve tracked most every legendary creature from leprechauns (six to date) to the Loch Ness Monster (caught twice) to Bigfoot (have a photo of me giving him an Indian rugburn) to the feared Chupacabra (I bedazzled him and he’s now my pet I call Simon.) I’ve solved the JFK murder though, for legal reasons, I must say that it merely had something to do with a malfunctioning jam spreader. I won’t take just any old case, though. When presented with the challenge of locating Justine Bateman’s career, I declined and told Jason he should stop rubbing it in.
This one was different. There had been no concrete evidence for years that the Theme-mail was still alive. It had traversed numerous states, even countries, and had changed so much in its twelve year existence, it’s hard to say where it would be now, if in fact it was still active. Imagine trying to find a specific phone number by looking in the phone book. Actually, imagine trying to find a phone book. That’s pretty much the task I had in front of me, only without the charming whiff of nostalgia.
I lit a cigarette and leaned back in my chair. My office was pretty pallid with dust and smoke. After all, I’d based my operations for over a year there. I was supposed to move a month ago, but because of the ineptitude of the lender I was using, I was still based out of my tiny office. My wife and son were none too happy. I stared at our sofa with the loveseat overturned on top of it to allow more space to pack boxes. Why I lived out of my office, I’ll never quite know. I sipped my Mountain Dew, having forsaken coffee when I realized it tasted like ‘boogers covered in muddy lava.’ My lip curled slightly. Somewhere, out of my periphery, a leaf blew off the only tree outside my window. It collapsed to the ground only to be tread upon by countless self-righteous passers by. I knew how it felt.
She strode into The Dank Reverie wearing a little blue number, not like 6 is a number, but more like musicals have numbers. Her dress seemed to function more like a cladding around a veneer than a tool of seduction. I didn’t come to gander at her pins, though. I came to get information. She made her way over to me after being impregnated by a patron.
“What do you know about the Theme-mail?”
While her candor might have been refreshing, her repetitive nature made me want to pour shellac down her throat. I resisted the urge, mainly because I didn’t have access to a funnel. When her gaze met mine, I slapped her across the face with my eyes, a gesture I swear she reciprocated by visually choking me with a slinky. This wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d anticipated. I took out a wet-nap and added some dampness to my forehead so I’d have something to wipe away later at an opportune moment.
“Why do you want it?”
“It’s good times. Do you need more reason than that? There’s a missing element of my life that can’t be filled by reading the funnies or looking at someone’s Facebook status.”
She adjusted her flapper hat, which clearly was as uneventful as it was anachronistic. I wasn’t learning anything. I lit a second cigarette to show her I meant business. Either she didn’t notice, or she did notice. My intuition was suffering in the oppressive stuffiness of the bar. I probably should have conducted this interview in my office. Only, my office didn’t have finger foods and the restroom there housed more fungi than at Toad’s bar mitzvah.
“Do you know when it was last seen?”
“Must’ve been the middle of 2007.”
“Lady, there’s a thin line between optimism and naiveté.”
“Thanks, Pops, I’ll remember that when I take my curmudgeon classes.”
“Are you enrolling in the spring, or taking them now?”
“Any theories as to why the Theme-mail disappeared?”
“I don’t know. You’re the investigator.”
The sultry tones of the big band decrescendoed and fizzled off, only to be met with appreciative applause. They weren’t Count Basie’s boys, but they blew a pretty mean horn. I threw them a twenty and asked them to play either “Mister Won’t You Please Help My Pony” or the Word Girl theme song. They obliged by taking my money and doing a reprise of Sing Sing Sing, mainly because their drummer had come up with a few more difficult drum fills that he really wanted to try out. It wasn’t Word Girl, but it would suffice. I’d ask for a refund later if they didn’t get around to my requests, or, if they broke into Glen Miller, I’d break into their faces.
The bartender, a boxy man with a nose so upturned that it could hang coats, came by and plopped two drinks on our table. He briefly acknowledged a wiry gentleman at the other end of the bar. The gruff gentleman smiled and coughed politely. This caused him to cough impolitely and try to recover with a wink. It came across as both endearing and very very creepy.
“Courtesy of the gentleman. He thinks you’re cute.”
The dame and I exchanged looks, but since our looks were both confused, it wasn’t noticeable. I sipped my drink around its colossal umbrella and she poured hers into her purse. I don’t think I’ll ever profess to understand women. There was so much I needed to know, but so little I wanted to ask. I figured I’d cut right to the chase.
“So who has the answers?”
Sunday, 10:40 am
It had been a while since I’d heard… actually, I think… yeah, I think this happened later. That’s right, I slept in.
Sunday, 1:25 pm
It had been a while since I’d heard the name Hickey. We’d crossed paths before. When I was starting out in the detective business, he had his hands in the entertainment racket. Some hybrid of Vaudeville and Japanese Noh theatre that seemed to resonate with the fans. It left me scratching my head. Sure it was entertaining, but I’d seen better stripshows at convents.
For as long as I knew the guy, I didn’t actually know an awful lot about Hickey. He was a pretty elusive person. I know he had some broad under his wing and I heard tell of a little piece of his loins running around
To clear my head, I took a walk out in the brisk October air. The autumnal splendor that is Reno, which is highlighted by slightly oranger sagebrush, failed to inspire, but it did chill me to the bone. And it was then that I made the realization: it’s frickin’ cold in late October, and I should put on something other than these Jams shorts. I moved on, a wiser man.
I knew I could probably squeeze some information out of Hickey’s father. Hickey’s old man and I go way back. He gave me some pretty sound advice when I was just starting out: “It doesn’t matter if you can walk the walk, or even talk the talk. You just gotta wear the pants.” Truer words were never spoken, except when my wife tells me that our kitchen smells like fetid puddle water. I even got Hickey’s father’s phrase emblazoned on all my stationery, though he did later sue me for, of all things, patent infringement. Anyway, as a turn of good fortune, Hickey’s father was in town for ‘business.’ I could never really ascertain what line of work the elder Hickey was into – could have been smuggling, could have been racketeering, could have been Musketeering. All I know is he was on the go and always carrying a healthy supply of bubble-wrap. He was hard to pin down, but he was easy to understand when he had something to say.
I met him outside the Tubby Pawn and Launder. He was a tall man in his 50-60s (you never can be too sure with a guy like Hickey’s father), with enough panache to fill a wheelbarrow. He carried himself like a stringer bolsters a return. In short, the man had it put together. He gleaned from me almost immediately that I wasn’t up for idle chatter.
“Harawph au mummahah.”
Hickey’s father spit out the marbles.
“Sorry about that. What can I do you for?!”
“I gotta know where he is.”
Hickey’s father stiffened slightly, but noticeably. Perhaps he wasn’t used to people asking about his son, being so intriguing himself that people rarely stopped him to inquire about anyone else. He appeared to get lost in the display window where we were standing, pretending to ogle the necklace/toaster oven combination they were shilling. He wasn’t interested in those contraptions – he had injured his cervical spine years back, coincidentally during the aforementioned Portland Pleather Incident, in what could only be described as a dusting accident. His neck could never support one of those beasts. No, he was just stalling.
“Fine weather we’re having, don’t you say?”
I didn’t want games. Actually, I could have gone for a game of Boggle right then, but I had left my bubble at the office. I didn’t want his games at that moment. And I began to wonder, what did he know about Hickey? Did he not even know where Hickey was? It’s the only thing that could explain his sudden circumlocution. There must have been some tragic accident, some horrible mash-up and Hickey had been missing ever since. And, of course, without my target, the last vestiges of the Theme-mail’s possible existence disappeared with him. His silence told me more than his words would readily admit.
“I asked you a question.”
“You most certainly did not. You made a declarative statement.”
I thought back closely to what I had said. ‘I gotta know where he is.’ He was right. Dammit, he was right. Two seconds into our exchange and I’d already blown it. My knees started feeling week, and perspiration came from my face at an unsettling rate. I mopped my brow, finally, but it was no use. I felt like my entire face was melting off, and trickling over my three ties (you never can be too prepared.) Hickey’s father wasn’t just good with semantics, he was the king of them. How could I get what I needed from him? His lips were tighter than lourver vents in a hurricane. I needed a new tactic.
“Let me buy you a beer.”
I got what I needed to know from Hickey’s father, but not for his lack of preventing me from it. The
man could convince an instruction manual it didn’t know what it was doing. I gotta give credit where credit is due; his lips wouldn’t sink any ships. In fact, the information I got from him wasn’t even spoken – it was derived by my expertise in extrapolating. For instance, when he said “These are some mighty fine pretzels,” I was not only able to guess Hickey’s approximate location, I was able to pinpoint which room in his apartment he was in. I’m not just good at reading between the lines, I’m good at reading between the spaces between the lines, and the lines between those spaces, and the spaces between those lines.
The drive I had ahead of me was daunting, and to compound matters, I only had one cassette with me: 95 South’s 1993 hit ‘South Quad City Knock.’ I tried listening to the radio, but ‘Whoot, There it Is’ was playing anyway, and the entire ordeal felt pretty self-deflating. I would have tried talk radio, but seriously, who can stomach that? I clicked off the radio and pulled a cigarette from the box. I set it ablaze, savoring the tar first, and the nicotine second. With my free hand, I began tapping on the steering wheel in a hypnotic rhythm, hoping it would keep me awake. Odd thing about hypnotic rhythms – they do very not that.
After pulling my car out of the ditch and putting some gauze on my second-degree burns, I got back on the road – after all, I had a date with destiny. But what would meeting with Hickey even accomplish? If he killed the Theme-mail, he certainly wasn’t going to admit it to me. And if he didn’t, but knew something about it, would I just hear more excuses? “My dog ate it.” “I’m thirty years old, for heaven’s sake. I have a life now.” Bah, it was all jabber. It didn’t mean anything. All these contingency plans mean nothing when you’re face to face with a meteorologist, so the phrase ostensibly goes. In retrospect, I should have realized that was in over my head all along.
I slapped my Dr. Two-Brains air freshener, as even the agreeable fragrances of Word Girl could not keep at bay the stench of this mystery. I’d only had the case for four days, and already my eyes were sagging like a hipped roof with rotted ridgepoles. I rolled down the window and let the biting cold snap my face hither and thither, but more thither than hither. Biting wind doesn’t really ‘do’ hither. The sobering chill awakened me so thoroughly, I doubt even an Enya album would have done any serious damage, aside from the aural pain. I was ready to confront him. My panties were, in essence, not in a bunch.
But was he waiting for me? I slowed my car momentarily to allow for clearer thinking, much in the way turning the radio down allows for better navigation. This could all be a trap. Why would Hickey’s father give me information, even if he was giving it under the guise of smalltalk? Surely he’d know that I could see past ‘Where’s the potty?’ to deduce his true meaning. I have a reputation, after all. I didn’t discover the lost city of
A panic attack was coming on strong, I could sense it. This is just how the Portland Pleather Incident began. Only it was raining then. And just as I managed to calm myself, my fears became fact – a solitary drop of rain ended its life on my windshield, followed in accelerating fashion by the cessation of life of many of its brothers and sisters. It was all starting again. I kept seeing things from the corner of my eye – was that a pot-bellied pig? Suddenly, everything got unbearably hot. I could hear, vaguely at first but growing exponentially louder, the jeers from the congregation: “You’re on fire, you’re on fire!” My clothes felt glued to my body, just then, and entirely too constricting of my giblets. My fear of spools virtually exploded in my face, making me fatally afraid of haberdashers. Was there one in the backseat? I had to look, but as with all my panic attacks, I could no longer see if I turned around. Making matters even worse, I got a sudden feeling of the exact opposite of déjà vu, which I would explain more thoroughly if it’d ever happened before. “I am the very model of a modern major general!” And that’s when I lost control of my legs – no longer able to distinguishing my right from left. Gas, or brake? Clutch or just mashing my Captain Huggy Face doll that had fallen to the ground? The glove box. For reasons unknown to me, I had to get into the glove box. I just had to get into the —
Then, as quickly as it had come on, it stopped. I regained control of my senses and, though I did assuredly see a pot-bellied pig on the side of the highway, I pressed on, flicking my wipers on high. A certain serenity came over me, and I clutched my cigarette once again. Before taking a drag, though, I thought better of it, and took a nip from my flask. If I’m going to make it through this night, I thought, I’m going to need fermentation over inhalation. I merely hoped it wouldn’t lead to annihilation. Anything was possible on this goose chase. To find something that had been dead for 30 months!
How did I get into this?
Still, my impulses were very rarely wrong. I felt I should at least check out the glove box. I glanced in and found an automatic rifle. I closed the compartment without taking the rifle, mainly because it was way too large to actually extricate. I could see a possible need in the future for this powder-infused backup, but not now. That’s what I had my Fun-Dip for. In the event of another panic attack or other such crisis, however, I knew exactly where to get a dozen guns. No, just one gun. Why was I thinking about eggs again?
The rain picked up, coming down in sinewy sheets, threatening the integrity of my windshield. Even at the fast speed, the wipers had trouble keeping up with the torrents as they obscured my view. Fortunately, the roads were empty – there was some football on, after all. I was making great time, but my mind was working overtime, all the time. Time. I didn’t have much of it. Who knew how long that dame was gonna be around?
Why was I thinking about that dame? She was nobody. I was doing a job for her, nothing more. Her hair, for chrissake! That… that… hair. It was like an opulent chatri, framing the caryatids of her jawline. What? What was I saying?! Dames like that are a dozen dimes. Hey, just because she got money, and just enough sass, and buttocks like a voluptuous oriel protruding over a façade —
This was getting bad. I had to find Hickey before it was too late.
Hickey’s apartment was, even to an undiscerning eye, squalid. I’d been here once before, no less than a week before the Portland Pleather Incident. Before another panic attack could surface, I took a quick swig from my flask and pushed aside the rusty gate door. He had no gate, only a door, which is why I didn’t push anything open. I leaned it against a tree so it might ward off whoever it was meant to ward off. Somewhere, a dog howled against the cacophony the storm was wringing; it was barely audible, and scarcely welcome. I tugged on my jacket and adjusted my hat, not in the way you adjust a television, but in the way you adjust to darkness. And, just before approaching the house, I thought discretion was the better part of valor and removed four of my ties. Too much caution could be a bad thing.
I have a checklist I go over in my mind before any confrontation. I call it the 5 Es. Examine. Extrapolate. Elucidate. Exterminate. Eat something beforehand. And, as it was 5 in the morning, my senses were all a bit dull. Except my appetite. That raged with the ferocity of a hundred thousand supermassive black holes. I knew I should have grabbed some tater tots before I had left. No matter, I’d have to just concentrate harder from here on out, or hope Hickey had some Screaming Yellow Zonkers.
His front door loomed ominously, but perhaps even more unsettling were the faint tones of Eddy Grant’s ‘Electric Avenue’ I could hear cutting deftly through the thick air. I put an earplug in the ear closest to the house, figuring I would soon require my hearing, unquestionably, but not really badly. I took one final drag off my cigarette and placed the cigarette on the windowsill. I had a strong hunch I would want something relaxing after the events that were about to take place. My smile had receded into a male-pattern scowl.
I rang the doorbell, and was only nominally surprised that it rang out to the ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’ theme song. It was all interconnected to Vaudeville and Japanese Noh, somehow. I didn’t see the connection at first, but before the night was out, I had a firm suspicion I’d know exactly what it was all about. The door creaked open, and the glinting eyes of a woman peered out.
“Private investigator. Open up.”
“Are you Bulbous?”
“Only if I’m travelling near the speed of light.”
There was a pause, then I heard the safety latch come undone. The door opened a few millimeters
further, but only enough for the glinting eyes to become suspicious voyeuristic eyes. They shone with the intensity of two lightbulbs that were not in any way connected to electricity, but maybe had a distant flashlight shining in their vicinity.
“What’s this all about, then? Ringing my bell at all hours of the night? Wearing hats so low I can only just see the bridge of your nose.”
“Don’t toy with me.”
“If I were toying with you, I’d say ‘Here kitty kitty’ and throw string at you.”
An irrefutable fact. Was she shooting straight from the hip or was it all smoke and mirrors? It’s tough to read a book when you can only see the first three letters of every word. It’s why I switched over to children’s literature. Dic and Jan are clear in all their actions. This woman seemed sincere. Too sincere. What was she hiding? Besides the only person who could tell me what happened to the Theme-mail. I had to try another tactic.
“Can I use your potty?”
Hoping she wouldn’t see through my toilet question like I was able to see through Hickey’s father’s, I put on my best pair of puppy dog eyes and even did the faintest semblance of a potty dance. Subtlety was pivotal here, like the keystone in a triumphal arch. She couldn’t discover my absolute need to search every inch of the apartment, even though I already knew which specific room he was in. Sometimes, my intuition isn’t exact, only incomprehensibly close. To my surprise, she opened the door and beckoned me in, possibly because hail was beginning to accumulate on her Dora the Explorer slippers. She closed the door behind me with a dull thud that was extremely loud in my good ear.
She weren’t a dame like other dames are dames. She was small, unassuming. Spoke in a terse but not unfriendly voice. Walked with a gait that made you both sympathize with and ultimately try to undermine her. But nothing about her was like anything else. She was, by the purest definition of the word, incomparable. Though, if I were to try, I’d have to say her arms were like two fleches, reaching only a small ways over the parquet flooring. But that doesn’t quite sum her up, or even begin to. She was an enigma from the moment I laid eyes on her. And that made me uneasy.
She escorted me to the bathroom, where I locked the door and planned my next step. Actually, with the Mountain Dew kinda hitting me hard, I figured I would make lemons from lemonade and go peepee. I had to get my head straight. Was Hickey sleeping? Why didn’t he answer the door? Was he even still here? Maybe Hickey’s father had given me deliberate false leadings to get me here, all while his son had made a daring yet timely escape. It was diabolical, but I’d seen worse before from squirrels. Particularly divisive squirrels, but squirrels nonetheless. Like, there was this one time they used the birdbath for—
I had to concentrate. This place was prying my grip off my own sanity. If I wasn’t careful, I’d end up on a milk carton, probably right below the ingredient ‘Vitamin A Palmitate.’ That wouldn’t behoove anybody. I also had a sudden desire to go out to the glove box and figure out a way that I could manipulate physics into retrieving that rifle. Perhaps I could take it apart by smearing it with egg yolks and—again with the eggs. What was with me lately? I wanted to say there was something to that, but I’m smarter than that. My impulses are rarely wrong, but when they are, it’s pretty easy to tell. Like that time during the Portland Pleather Incident.
I shook off the panic attack before it escalated. How long had I been in the bathroom? A minute? Ten minutes? Is this looking suspicious? I had to go back out there. But what would I say to her when I got out? I figured I’d burn that bridge when I came to it. A flush and a scrub later, I opened the door and let out an in-no-ways disingenuous laugh.
“Thank you for that, ma’am. I love the bathroom reader. Who knew that drunk armadillos…”
My voice trailed off. She wasn’t there. The apartment wasn’t big, consisting of a living room that opened into a kitchen, and a hallway. In that hallway, where I currently was, there were three closed doors, but she wasn’t where I had left her, walking past the sofa. A resident wouldn’t just let a stranger alone in their house without watching him closely. Unless she momentarily popped off into the bedroom, she was gone.
Fear gripped me with its icy vice. I grabbed the first nearby sturdy object I could use as a weapon if it came to it, but it was a globe. The second was a copy of Reader’s Digest. The third was a lamp that was simply too big to wield in an emergency. The fourth was her armoire. This was no good. She had no weapons. Unless… unless she already hid them, or worse yet, had them. I sprinted to the kitchen and saw that no knives were anywhere to be found. I grabbed an egg whisk (AGAIN with the eggs!) and a reasonably heavy cookbook and put my back to the refrigerator. I had to keep all my senses about me if I was to ascertain her position. Maybe she just didn’t like to cook and went back to bed, giving me free reign of her house. Nah, too pedestrian. Bigger things were afoot.
I crept around the corner to survey the room before me, making absolutely sure no crevice was left unsearched. She had to have retreated to the bedroom. Perhaps scared? No, she was too non-descript to exude an emotion as powerful as fear. She had to be somewhere, lurking, probably with sharp utensils at her disposal.
Could she have gone in my car and obtained the gun? Unlikely, but no doubt a possibility. I inched forward. The duplex she lived in was built in the 50s, when they went for function over form. Consequently, the two remaining doors at the end of the hall, after the bathroom, were likely a master bedroom and a smaller room, possibly an office. Or an abattoir. There’s no telling what this dame might be up to. I flailed the egg whisk a few times to get practiced with it. I had to be confident that I could inflict significant damage, otherwise what was the point in carrying it? I wasn’t going to lie to myself, it gave me comfort to have that egg whisk. The cake recipe book? Not so much, though, to its credit, it did contain a great recipe for lemon bisque.
I opened what I deduced was the smaller bedroom, though its current purpose was total conjecture. As a top detective, and this dame likely being a top mastermind, she must have known had intuitive I’d be, and most detectives go right to their #1 suspected location. That would put her in the guest room to give her extra time to prepare. So I, being a master at knowing what mastery truly is, opted to pick the ‘stupid’ room first in hopes of utilizing the element of surprise. Plus, I really wanted to see what neat stuff she might have in there.
Sweat cascaded from my face like… like… I couldn’t even think of anything that would cascade in such a way. That was, as they say in my theology seminars, no bueno. I tried to sop it up using a recipe book, but that was to no avail. Gently, I turned the handle of the door and pushed it in, extending the whisk as a fierce deterrent. No one there.
The room appeared to be a library of sorts. There were sections of books neatly arranged in height order on various shelves. I could see three partitions each with labeled category. The categories froze me to the very core as I read them aloud. The largest of the three sections was marked, ‘Architecture’ and was filled with literally hundreds of volumes all about architecture, terminology, relevance, reviews. It was startling to see this much collected work on architecture in such a rustic setting. Entire encyclopedias on entablatures. Teeming tomes on trellises and tail beams. Copious collections on Constructivist corbelling. I wasn’t sure whether to be in awe or in trouble. I shook like unfastened weatherstripping in a monsoon.
The second section of books, smaller than the first, was labeled ‘Ties.’ I hadn’t even known there
existed a single book about ties, never mind enough to occupy an entire section of shelving. There were books about etymology, history, fashion, and other uses of ties. I was starting to get normal déjà vu now, which was definitely the first time that had ever happened. I looked down and saw that my current paisley tie had been stained. When was it stained? Before I got here? After I got here? My view started to shrink, like one gazing originally from a Palladian window suddenly forced to see the world through only a transom. Another architecture reference? Architecture. How did she know? And ties. Ties? What did it all mean? How was it all connected?
The third section of the library contained books about, by, and starring Word Girl.
It was all too close to home. How had this strange woman known about these things? Was I going to turn around only to see the silvery casing of my fate as it passed straight from the muzzle, through my nasal cavity, out the back of my skull, and into the neighbor’s prized shrubs? I bum-rushed the other bedroom, discretion being absolutely no part of valor, and kicked the door thoroughly off its hinge. It splintered into the room and I jumped in, whisk a’blazin. And what was before me was something I will never, even with years of heavy drinking, forget.
Hickey lay in a pool of his own blood, surrounded by 144 unbroken, white eggs.
It was the following Thursday at 8:30 when the dame walked back into my office. She wasn’t the last person I expected to cross that threshold, but with Ferdinand Magellan having been long dead by that point, she was as good as any. Her melancholy radiated like the circles of an archivolt in a Gothic narthex. I stole the cigarette from my mouth and tapped the ash out in my Word Girl ashtray. It was one drag from finished, but if there’s one thing this job taught me, it’s that nothing ever gets done completely. I couldn’t shake the feeling of déjà vu. That didn’t bode well. Things always had a way of boding very poorly on Thursdays.
She was dressed head to toe in a luxurious black – a sultry ninja with all the allure and none of the martial arts skills. I could probably take her down with my ashtray, but why would I want to? It would just muck up her fancy threads. But I will say this, the dame could make an entrance. In another time, another reality, I would have wanted this Trojan horse dropped off inside my city walls, and I wouldn’t have minded discovering what lay inside. But not here, and not today.
Even less than last time, I didn’t particularly care about what she wanted. She wasn’t getting her money back – I did what I could, but even she would concede that the probability of finding what happened to the Theme-mail was now infinitesimal. I chewed on the tip of my cigarette, seriously considering switching to candy ones because chewing on the butt end of a cigarette was truly making me nauseous, and doing no small favors to my dental bills. And if she had another cockamamie scavenger hunt for me to go on, the briefcase she’d have to plop on my desk would have to be so big—
She plopped herself on my desk instead. In my head, I ran through all the possibilities for her visit, not like you run through a third base coach’s stop sign, but like your scimitar runs through the breastplate of a Visigoth warrior before he could capture your flag. What was that look in her face? It wasn’t sadness anymore, it was something harder to discern. Was it anxiety? Eagerness? Dare I say, was it hope? What could this woman have hope for? With Hickey eviscerated, the legend of the Theme-mail went with him. It was as dead as the Colonial revival use of gambrels. She could sing her pretty little canary songs all she wanted, but they still sounded like Lady Gaga to me. I was done with her, and from what I could see, so was common sense.
“Hickey ain’t dead.”
I straightened my ties and let a confident laugh barrel out of my mouth. The dame didn’t know when to quit.
“I beg to differ.”
“He faked it.”
“Lady, you’re nuts. You didn’t see him like I saw him.”
“I didn’t need to.”
“You know what I say? If it bleeds like a duck, and has part of its intestines dangling from his mouth like a duck, it’s a dead duck.”
“I think you’d better take a gander at this.”
She plopped, in a very broad sense, a photograph on my desk. It was one of them Polaroid jobs, and if it had been done up in sepia tones, I’d have figured she just went to an old timey photo booth and played dress-up. Lord knows the dame like dressing up. She must have spent her daddy’s fortune on slinky dresses and hip replacements. She was older than she looked. I didn’t even want to look at the photo – I wanted to lean in, give her a very long, passionate kiss, and throw her out onto the streets, never to see her again. In all senses of the word, I was finished. While it wasn’t a failure on the scale of the Portland Pleather Incident, it weren’t an episode I was gonna put on my résumé, that’s for sure. But the funny thing about dames, when they’re sitting on your hand, you’re inclined to do what they ask of you.
My jaw positively hit my desk when I saw the photo. I recognized the place immediately – it was Hickey’s bedroom. On the back of the photo was jotted the time it was taken, less than a half hour after I left the scene as the sunlight began drowning the obsolescent darkness; I had grown tired of waiting for the local police to show and make my unheralded exit. I did a double-double take, in case my first series of spastic head jerks weren’t convincing enough. It couldn’t be – this had to be a case of simple trick photography.
It was a picture of one gross eggs, strewn about exactly as I’d seen them, and a chalk outline that I’d drawn around the lifeless body of Hickey. Only there was no body there, nor was there any blood. But what was most eye-catching was the apparition in the center of the frame. It was Hickey’s father, waving at the camera with a Cheshire grin, waving an egg whisk at the camera with a playful maliciousness. It cooled my soul to gaze at the photo.
“You know what this means?”
But the dame didn’t hear me. Actually, nobody heard me. The dame had disappeared. Her car was no longer parked outside my office. With an unwelcome suddenness, I could again hear the taunts of the congregation, scatting in unison their acrimonious derision. The walls seemed to close in on me just then in a claustrophobic phalanx-like advance. I tried to reach my flask, but it shirked the reach of my ever-shrinking arms. Oh no, it was happening again. It began to rain inside my office, my sprinkler systems activating because of the abundant smoke swirling around. Was that a pot-bellied pig?
“There’s no business like show business, like no business I know!” Why is my right foot my left? Honk honk!
A shot rang out.
I woke up, startled, and looked at the clock. It was still Thursday at around 11:45pm. As hard as I tried, I could never seem to fully grasp Thursdays. So was the entire visit a dream? Did the dame really come back or were those hash browns as unsafe as I feared before I ate them anyway? The answers never came. I lit a cigarette and approached the window with reservation. The air was pungent with autumn, and the street lights appeared to oscillate in brightness in time with my heartbeat. In the distance, a hot air balloon silently cut through the night sky with the stealth of a hundred ninjas on a hundred well-oiled tricycles. The streetlights hurt my eyes, and I pulled my hat lower to shade my poor retinas. They’d seen some horrible things in the last week.
I’d asked before, but it bore repeating: what does it all mean? My dreams were rarely wrong, except that one where I saw Fred Savage winning the World Cup – even then, he’s still alive and the World Cup is still happening, so I don’t rule anything out. If my intuition was as sharp today as it was the day I discovered the secret to the Bermuda Triangle was an elaborate fraternity prank, then I had to at least give some credence to the possibility that Hickey might be alive, no matter how slim. I had forgotten about Hickey’s father, a man capable of acts that would bend the fabric of space and time itself into an origami heron. It made my skin waltz.
If Hickey was alive, what did that mean about the Theme-mail? Did the Theme-mail still have life? Would anyone ever see the Theme-mail again? I suppose only time would tell.