Detective Story #13 — Of Time & Office Space

by TheBloomingIdiot

You know how it is: try to picture someone you have only talked to on the phone and when you finally meet they look nothing like the person you imagined. The nature of your surprise is different, though, when you’ve spent hours imagining a hypothetical person know you will someday meet. By the time I opened for business I had spent hours imagining as many possible first clients as I could. I imagined their faces, their bodies, their clothes, their voices, their temperaments, and the types of investigations they would carry in with them. I must have conjured thousands of clients. Maybe millions. Who makes little hashmarks every time a new variation of an old idea flashes through their mind? I’ve been a detective long enough now to have met many of the people I imagined in those early days. Or so it seems. In truth, you can never really imagine a person. You can only reconfigure memories of the people you’ve already met. And these amalgams always lack definition, like someone who is just a little too far away.

When she walked through the door I was surrounded by strips of paper. I had been working on another map and had decided to indulge a bit of fantasy, drawing scale pictures of the furniture I hoped to have in my office some day on scraps paper and arranging them on my map of the office. The exercise reminded me of a movie I had watched when I was a kid about a boy growing up poor in the Depression who cut pictures of his favorite foods out of magazines, set them on a plate, and pretended to feast.

I heard a light tapping and looked up. A woman was standing at the threshold, gently rapping the extended knuckle of her index finger against the doorjamb. A bemused smile pulled at my lips. She was nothing like I’d imagined. She was too average to imagine.  Imaginations gravitate toward the exceptional — the tall, the short, the fat, the skinny, the ugly, the beautiful — but fail to account for the ordinary. The ordinary is familiar and because it is familiar we mistake it for simplicity.  See something every day and soon you forget its complexity. We only truly notice the ordinary when it is forced upon us.

She was around average height with a face that had probably made her look older throughout her teens and twenties but now, in her early forties, made her look a bit younger (I would have guessed she was 35). She had a vague chin and thin lips that disappeared when she spoke. Her skin was fair but splotchy. She had a medium shag haircut that was tucked behind the ear on one side (left). Her black blouse drew out the sparkle from a pair of large, gold rectangular earrings. Her pumps were flesh colored (though not the color of her own flesh) and cut in a sort of lattice work design. She was apologetic and a bit embarrassed about coming in, convinced that her case was too trivial.

“Who am I to decide what’s important?” I said, hoping to set her at ease as I ushered her into a lawn chair.

“There are two coffeehouses in my neighborhood,” she began in a voice that started off resigned but became sheepish as she went on, “and most days I grab a coffee on my way to work. It’s expensive but it just tastes better than anything I’ve been able to make at home.”

I nodded and lifted the small wire-mesh recycling bin I kept behind my desk to show her the jumble of paper coffee cups it contained. She laughed.

“If the first coffeeshop looks too busy when I drive by, I just go to the other one. They both use the same coffee supplier — a local roaster — so, in theory, there shouldn’t be much of a difference. But there always is. At the first place the coffee tastes unbelievable — I must drink it two or three times faster than usual — while at the second place it’s still very good, just not quite as good. Always. Every time. It doesn’t matter who the barista is, or what time of day it is. Are they using better water? Are they brewing it longer? It doesn’t taste stronger, just . . . deeper, fuller. Anyway, you can see how ridiculous this is.”

She had come to me, she admitted, because no one else would take her case. Luckily, I had no paying clients, no money coming in, nothing at all but time and office space.

You might expect that I spent hours, even days, researching coffee — and the related techniques and equipment — before surveilling the two coffeeshops to determine what they were doing differently. When I told my brother about my first case he was surprised I hadn’t tried to get hired at both coffeeshops. I would have happily done all of this but it wasn’t necessary because I happened to know the owner of the first coffeeshop personally — we had gone to high school together — and, in her enthusiasm for her business, she had already explained why the coffee tasted better at her cafe: they pre-infused their grounds. That is, they poured hot water over the grounds to release any carbon dioxide before putting putting them in the coffeemaker. She was adamant: if you skipped this step the carbon dioxide in the dry grounds would repel water during brewing making the final product less flavorful. She was appalled by how many coffeefeelingshops skipped this step and made a point of drilling it into her employees.

When I told my client, she was stunned.
“You just happened to know that?”
I shrugged.
She reached into her purse and pulled out her wallet.
“How much do I owe you? Do you take credit cards?”
I told her there was no charge but she insisted on paying for my time.
“That would come to about a dollar,” I said.
She wrote a check for $51 — my hourly rate plus a bonus.

I never cashed it. The most important thing about her case had not been the money or the feeling of validation or even the triviality of the matter she asked me to investigate — it had been her embarrassment. She had been turned down by other agencies — four of them, in fact — and yet she had kept asking. I was lucky she had come through my door at all. How many people had been turned down by a more established agency and given up, resolving to live with some unanswered question? How many more had never bothered to ask, had simply ruled themselves out?

After she left I sat and looked at the check she had given me and tried to settle on a criteria for the kinds of investigations I would accept. There are plenty of valid reasons to turn down an investigation — ethical reasons, logistical reasons — but as I tried to imagine declining a case based on merit, I found only my own values and preferences. Overcoming preconceptions was one of the main reasons I had decided to succumb to family tradition and become a detective. So, I said again, this time to myself: who was I to decide what was important enough to investigate?

The next morning I put a new ad in the newspaper and changed the language on my web site:


My father and any number of well-meaning colleagues advised me against this direction. The industry standard was for small agencies to narrow their focus and specialize while large agencies divided themselves into departments that basically did the same thing. It was one thing to accept “minor” cases when business was slow but to actively seek them out was seen as demeaning to the profession. The phrasing of my ad offended them as well. Referring to myself as a “detective” rather than a “private investigator” (or, better still, simply as an “investigator”) was considered old-fashioned, my use of the word “mystery”  amateurish and vague. But vague was what I wanted. I wanted to appeal to people who had mysteries in their lives, people who were baffled or bewildered or simply curious — not just people who were worried that their spouse was cheating or that their employees were stealing.

There’s an old adage among detectives that clients desperately want an answer until they hear it. Like most adages, it’s absolutely true part of the time. I’ve had plenty of clients who are grateful, even relieved, to receive my results. Quite a few are bemused. Still, true to the adage, many of my clients — probably a third, give or take — are disappointed. What came as a surprise (to me, at least) is the number of clients who are irritated, even angry. The angriest make wild, peevish accusations, or even refuse to pay.  Some seem to be angry because they feel the solution was something they should have figured out for themselves, but many, I suspect, feel cheated because gaining an answer has cost them a mystery. I rarely press the issue and often, after a few weeks or months, I’ll receive an apologetic phone call or a remorseful note with a check enclosed for the full amount.

If a client doesn’t pay, though, I make no effort to collect. It’s not worth the time and effort. Besides, the clients bring mysteries with them but they are also a mystery themselves. They come to me with some question they hope I can help them answer but the mystery they secretly, unknowingly, want me to solve is the unanswerable mystery of their selves. When I look at it that way how could I ever expect a client to be satisfied?