“Can I count on your discretion?”
His first words. Even before he introduced himself.
Not that an introduction was necessary. I already knew his name — we all did. He was a legend.
This was my first time seeing him up close. His figure was slight but he didn’t seem small. He seemed economical: absent any extraneous details. His pants were perfectly cut; pressed without looking too crisp. His cream colored shirt looked so comfortable I wanted to wear it. His shoes were worn but clean and well-maintained.
I tilted an open hand toward the two chairs in front of my desk, a vague gesture that seemed to imply he was welcome to sit in both chairs simultaneously. He took a step forward but didn’t sit down right away. Instead he stood between the chairs, the fingers of his left hand grazing padded upholstery.
“I prefer vocal confirmation,” he said. “I’m sure you understand.”
He waited, his body not so much still as it was neutral, like a car: engine running, gears disengaged.
“Yes, of course,” I said in a clear, deliberate voice. “You can absolutely rely on my honoring the code of confidentiality between detective and client.”
“Thank you,” he said. Then his body flowed into motion, stepping between the chairs, then easing himself into the chair on the right. Standing still he had seemed light on his feet but in motion he was so graceful that his movements nearly escaped notice.
“How can I help you?” I asked, sitting back in my chair.
“I’m working on the wrong case,” he said.
I resisted the urge to nod. Most clients need to feel that I understand their problem right away and a quick nod, even if it is a little premature, can help. This situation called for something different. He was a veteran detective. I had studied several of his cases, attended his lectures. No professional tricks: that was the best way to proceed.
I opened my mouth to ask what he meant but he stopped me by raising a finger.
“I have several active cases. High-priority, paying cases. I have operatives helping me, of course, but there is an expectation — a perfectly reasonable expectation — that I will attend to each investigation personally, if not fully. My operatives are not intended to act as surrogates for me, they are surrogates for my time. They allow me to conduct more investigations than would otherwise be possible. Recently, however, I have become distracted by what I have come to realize is another case, a non-paying case.”
Now I nodded. This was a situation I could understand.
“Do you know why I became a detective?” He asked.
I shook my head and said nothing. I make it a rule to never answer rhetorical questions.
“I became a detective,” he said, “because I wanted to see the sadness in all things.”
I raised my eyebrows. Many detectives leave the profession because they find it too depressing. We spend most of our time in the double darkness of our clients’ uncertainty and our own. Guiding people through the mysteries in their lives can be disheartening. I had never heard a detective cite sadness as their reason for joining the profession. No wonder he was such a natural.
“When I started out I understood my motivations quite differently,” he continued after a pause. “Over time I’ve come to better understand my own impulses. I thought I was seeking truth and beauty and all that abstract, philosophical silliness. But all I really wanted was to find the sadness that lies at the heart of some things and covers the rest like a veneer. Sadness is the truth and beauty of this life: it is the vessel of beauty and the marrow of truth; what isn’t born of sadness ends in sadness — and there is much that is sad through and through.”
I nodded, noting the melancholy his words had triggered in me. Sadness was the core, the marrow, of life. How any times had I been on the verge of having this same, lovely realization?
“And how do you find it?” I asked.
The question seemed to surprise him and he smiled.
“It’s about how you approach cases, how you approach witnesses and clues.” He paused, then went on: “I’m sure you’ve already figured this out — that’s why I’ve come to you — but many of our colleagues approach everyone and everything they come across with so-called skepticism. Everyone is a liar until their story checks out, every clue might have been planted until you can confirm to your satisfaction that it wasn’t, every suspect is guilty until you have determined that they’re not (and even then they’re still guilty of something else). Tiresome nonsense. Skepticism is a fine approach for science but it makes for a hollow way of life. And, like living, investigation is an art. Each case is a work of art. The crime, if there is one, is a work of art, and so is our investigation.”
“And you don’t see a place for skepticism in approaching a work of art?”
“Of course not.” He said. “Art requires openness, a willingness to overcome your point of view. Skepticism, or what people call skepticism, is usually a withdrawing into one’s point of view based on the assumption that what has worked in the past is all the truth there is to find. We’re all chauvinists and if art has any value it’s enabling us to see and understand another point of view. Too often skepticism is an extension of anxiety. We fear being wrong, so we hedge our bets by being skeptical of everything — which usually just means being unwilling to accept the value of a new idea. Frankly, what most detectives characterize as their skepticism is only cynicism. Challenging and questioning during an investigation should open doors not close them. The jaded, trust-no-one, hard-boiled persona is a product of ego and there’s no place for ego in this busines.”
“That’s true,” I nodded. “Is that why you’re here?” I asked trying to bring the conversation back into focus. “Because your ego has gotten in the way of a case?”
“Not exactly. At least, I don’t think so. I’m here because I want you to investigate me and how I’m investigating a case.”
I raised my eyebrows again.
“I can see potential confidentiality issues. Has your client given his or her authority for this — or would I be retained as one of your operatives?”
“It’s not like that,” he said. “As I said, this is a non-paying case. In truth, this is a case without a client. No one has hired me, I’m not being paid, so there is no expectation of confidentiality.”
“You use silence well,” he said, smiling. “I’ll explain.”
He lowered his eyes for a moment.
“There is a hot dog vendor in front of my building. He’s been there for years. We’ve been on a first name basis for most of that time. He’s friendly and amiable and moves easily between conversations with his various customers. I’ve spoken briefly with him about the weather, sports, politics — all the standard, casual topics. I’ve also spoken with him about life, death, spirituality, philosophy, aesthetics. We’ve had chats that lasted twenty seconds and others that lasted twenty minutes. Lately, however — for about the last six weeks — I’ve been unable to focus on my work because of an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with him. We talk for long periods of time, sometimes more than an hour. I order a hot dog, we talk, then I wait when other people order and he and I continue talking whenever there is a lull or whenever he is able to do his job while also conversing with me. Sometimes I do most of the talking but sometimes I just listen. Increasingly, time I should be spending on my investigations is spent talking to this hot dog vendor. Whenever our conversations end, I feel a real sense of regret and often find myself going over them in my head, rehashing what each of us has said and rehearsing what I’ll say next time.”
“And you say this has been a single, ongoing conversation for the past six weeks?”
“For the most part, yes.”
“May I ask what the conversation is about?”
“It doesn’t matter.” He said and shrugged. “Besides, you’ll find out soon enough.”
I agreed to take his case. We spent fifteen or twenty minutes discussing terms. He wanted to waive the customary rate reduction within the trade but I was unwilling to charge my full rate to a colleague. After some pleasant back and forth we agreed that I would receive part of my payment in future referrals.
I expected him to leave after we had signed the contracts but once he had returned my pen and clipboard he settled back into his chair.
“Before I leave, I have a request.”
“Whenever I work with another detective I ask them to tell me the Parable of the Assassin — I assume you know it?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’ve heard and read it many times. At the Academy, of course, and from my father before that.”
“Tell it to me,” he said, gently.
I took a deep breath and then began.