I knew the svelte blonde was going to be trouble. I’d just shelved my copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray when she entered the office.
She would have made a Pre-Raphaelite beauty have a hissing fit with Rossetti until he set his pet wombats on her. Although at the time, I didn’t think she’d know the difference between a marsupial and William Morris.
Was I wrong.
The first thing she said was, “Shouldn’t you be playing Artie Shaw?”
“No,” I replied, “I’m a contemporary private investigator. It’s Tom Waits or you can create your own blog and bitch about it, lady.”
She shrugged and then sashayed closer to my desk, cluttered with Post It notes of favorite aphorisms, axioms, and the occasional Web site for lonely investigators: “Thrills In the Skin Trade.”
“And you’re English,” she mocked.
“The old tropes are being cleaned out. Haven’t you read any Ian Rankin?”
She was obviously unimpressed as she fingered the spines of my contemporary book collection and plucked free a dog-eared copy of Farewell My Lovely.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
She stared at me as if I’d asked her to, like Wittgenstein, answer metaphysical riddles that had bedeviled philosophers for centuries.
How the mind boggles when it turns to moral or ethical considerations. I tried another approach: “What brings you here?”
“Oh,” she said with her sensuous lips, “it’s business, not pleasure.”
“Funny, I thought it was a mix of the two.” Had it been any more pleasurable, I thought, I’d have had to get an espresso maker.
“Touché!” she replied.
I was almost sure she was about to show me her fencing scar when she said, “We need your help.” She didn’t plead, but asked it like a couple of Stasi who discovered the downstairs tenant had been hiding an American coonhound.
She smiled and opened the office door. I wish she hadn’t.
What shambled in was not my idea of a private client unless I was a fille de joie into the Mensa crowd.
“Meet the other editors.”
Now I wished I had a gun hidden under the copy of the New York Times instead of Sebastian Horsley’s Dandy in the Underworld. And I wished I’d read the book’s cover. It had nothing at all to do with a rake sleuth in the world of organized crime, as I had led myself to believe. But it was a damn good read for a self-professed man about town.
It turned out the editors had misplaced a feature article and wanted me to root it out. They’d pay freelance wages but any other expenses had to pass the straight-face test. They seemed earnest in the way that my old Oxford mate named Ernest was not.
I took notes in the manner of Dostoevsky and poured myself a gin and tonic.
The deputy editor had been the last person to see the article. He’d edited it, written a hed, and then realized the text was in German and his grandfather had shot people for less. By the time he’d returned from the library with all of Wagner’s operas, the manuscript had gone and in its place was a signed copy of Doris Fleming’s memoir, My Torrid Affair with a Lighthouse: And the Bastard Children Who Wouldn’t Understand.
I asked the copy editor what he knew. He replied that the word “zeitgeist” had been crossed out in red.
I questioned the senior editor. He thought he once dated a Bavarian but she had turned out to be a Bolshevik and since his dog was Pekinese he thought it best to cancel his library card.
The assistant editor was sketchy on the facts. He thought the article was scheduled for next month and had already booked a holiday to the Wilhem Reich Museum in Maine to align his orgone.
Which brought me to the chief editor. All he could add was that he’d written a coverline for it: “Vas Deferens’ Final Thrust.”
I questioned the svelte blonde, who I learnt was an intern, and she told me the feature had gone into design and then all the editors’ doors had closed and she’d been e-mailed a highly litigious suggestion to photocopy a certain part of her anatomy. She defiantly refused to name the culprit because had it come from someone else, she might have considered, but since it came from a creep she was being tight lipped.
They were all being a bit tight lipped for my liking. Id told them I’d check into it, but that I wanted an advance, dinner for two at the Clandestine Onion, and a signed copy of Donleavy’s Ginger Man.
The chief editor said he’d see what he could do and the blonde mouthed to me “Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
The copy editor turned at the door. I thought he meant to tell me something he’d failed to mention, maybe tell me something in confidence.
“I’m in love with a misplaced modifier.”
He said it like it was some private joke. I didn’t know what the hell it meant. And anyway, I felt like “A love-machine/With clockwork joints of supple gold.”
I couldn’t get the blonde out of my head — or Swinburne, it seemed.
I decided to run a quick background check on the editors. Nothing serious, just a bit of digging around.
None of them showed up on a Google search. Which meant I was probably dealing with small fries. (Had the editors been French, I wondered if in light of the present administration I’d have had to refer to them as steak fries or home fries? But then what have the French given America beside obesity? Just that draped female with a book of law in her left hand and a torch in her right. Doesn’t anyone read Rimbaud anymore? Let’s make her modern! She should at least be showing her tattooed naval and have a cell phone in one hand and a flashlight in the other.)
I tried another well-documented gumshoe trick for discovering facts. I questioned the janitor. He was a wonderful fellow, full of trivia and wearing a watch that would have made the Swiss cuckoo.
I came away with absolutely no dirt on the editors but now knew who had designed the first toilet bowl brush. A Stanley Crud from the Borough of Backwater who had had to share a privy and after a few failed attempts with a stray cat’s tail, the steel-wired hair of a local urchin, and his wife’s collection of antique scrubbing brushes, had finally latched on to the idea of attaching the collected shavings from men’s beards to a stick. It worked wonders and he was never seen with facial hair again.
Having failed with the janitor, I tried the next best thing. The editor’s wives.
Unfortunately the copy editor’s was in a rented motel room in New Jersey with a scuba diver from Brussels. She wouldn’t return my calls. Nor the copy editor’s.
I caught up with the deputy editor’s shopping and ended up with their dinner, rum balls, milk of magnesium, a copy of Vogue, and a herbal love cream that worked wonders on my dry skin.
The senior editor’s slammed the door in my face and called her uncle who had died two years ago. He answered the phone, but had difficulty communicating. And then their call got crossed with a credit card operator from India and the senior editor had a fit when he saw next month’s credit charges. He went on a chip binge and locked himself away in the attic with a book on unknown facts of janitors and other caretakers of the soul.
The assistant editor wasn’t married. But I located his girlfriend on “Meet A Mate: Get A lifelong Friend.” Turned out to be a goldendoodle with a talent for romance. She’d have been my new best friend had I not made it clear that the only dog I needed was the black dog of melancholy. She wasn’t offended since she told me her dog star was rising and signed her final iChat “Man’s best friend, Lady Chatterley.”
I was left with only the chief editor’s wife.
I knew things were going to go badly as soon as she opened the door and a line from the Immortal Bard of Stratfordshire popped into my head: “A horse, my kingdom for a horse.”
She was an anglophile she told me. Loved everything about Britain up to Hadrian’s Wall and Offa’s Dyke. Couldn’t stand the Irish on account of them joining the EU and producing a monster like Beckett who ruined theatre with his declaring how hideous a semi-colon!
I feigned indifference and admitted to a minimalist amount of interest in the theatre after Mother Goose had stolen my box of Black Magic.
It was then that she opened her Pandora’s Box. A curse on the house of editors, I wanted to shout, and you’re all a bunch of avuncular brutes — but the last was plagiarism and wives tell their husbands everything.
I couldn’t stop her from telling me about her husband. It was a logorrhea’s nightmare come true. She started with his birth and explained that even then he was marked as being a special boy, a success, because he had been breached and was able to spin around and shove his head out and mewl, “Get me outta here….” Words in one so young were unheard of, she told me, except in the criminally insane.
Then it was toddler baths in which he ran his own water and bathed his parents while reciting Newton’s laundry list. Tales about his preschool years making coffins for dead languages. His pubescent days drawing and labeling downy birds. His adolescent forays into forensic science and recycled lollipop-stick birdhouses. And then it was to an Ivy League school and planting deciduous trees for every time he heard the word “pompadoured asshole.”
I couldn’t escape the harpy. She had me cornered in her husband’s recliner and was now bringing me his childhood drawings; explicit accounts of the sex lives of all of creation. Next came his diplomas. My eyes rested just long enough on one for Grub Street Guide. I made a mental note of that as another was whisked before my eyes, this one for writing an entire screenplay in two lines, which were:
Talk about faits divers. I wondered what Félix Fénéon would make of such a miniature dispatch?
But I had more important matters to attend to than the dolly don dithers. I had to take onions to my heart.
And I did. I began to sob. (A great trick recommended by The Cuff & The Blow: Ten Years in the Private Investigators Racket by one Edward Clamant.)
Then I laid it on strong. My mother was dying from a rare disease known as Instress, first recognized by the poet Hopkins, which he described as a “stem of stress between us and things that bears us out and carries the mind over.”
This broad was having none of it. She kept bombarding me with dross — which struck me as odd since some editors refer to corrected hard copy as dross!
It was time to play dirty with the dame. “Is that a photo of your husband there?”
It wasn’t. It was a framed picture of Ernest Hemingway with a wounded ambulance. But it worked.
I was out the door in a heartbeat and scampering down the street.
But it was going to take more than Hitchcock’s McGuffin to ditch this dame.
One look behind me and I could see her shadowing me.
What’s with this woman? I thought, as I hailed a cab. Even as we shot toward the busy intersection, I could see she had reams of papers clenched in her fist.
I ordered the cabby to step on it. He shrugged. Foot to the gas, I reiterated. He looked at me blankly. Floor it buddy! He furrowed his brow.
“What, no speak English?” I asked
“No, listen, I was brought up by respectable folks, none of Larkins’ your parents fuck you up kind of thing. I took elocution lessons at 12 and was educated at the School for Public Speaking in the Lower East Side. So I wouldn’t mind it if you referred to it as, ‘please give the engine a bit of gas, there’s a good fellow.’”
Now it was my turn to shrug my shoulders and look put out. Because I saw the broad was tailing us on the back of a currier’s bike.
“I want to loose the lady on the bike, okay,” I asked in my best diction.
But we couldn’t give her the slip.
So I decided to loose her in the Subway. I needed to get free of the woman and get back to my office. I’d had an epiphany in the back of the cab and wanted to look up some Joyce.
Was this broad persistent. I couldn’t shake her. It was time to get rough with her.
I stopped at one of the grubby cafe joints along the way and bought her a coffee. No man in the right mind would drink one of these brackish concoctions, but I needed to get rid of the woman, and quick.
She took the offered libation and I felt liked I’d handed Socrates the poisoned cup. I always get to feel like this around noontime.
I knew I was playing a dirty trick, but there was no point in engaging in dialogue with this editor’s wife in an attempt to reach an understanding or an ethical concept by exposing and dispelling error if I knew she was in the wrong.
Then I pulled my ace. I stood abruptly, pointed to editor’s wife, and shouted, “My God, it’s Jessica Parker from Sex in the City!” She didn’t look anything like her, but it was better than saying she was Minni Driver, people might think she merely drove a Cooper.
Hoards flocked. As I guessed they would.
I wore a huge smug smile on my face as I sat in the train, which afforded me enough privacy to plan my next move.
I needed to get back to the office. The epiphany I’d had in the back of the cab had been about the svelte intern. There was something not right about her. She reminded me a lot of the bird woman in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
To Be Continued……..