Homage to Catatonia

A Loving Catalog of Orphaned Ideas.

Category: Detective Story

Detective Story #12 — The Parable of the Assassin

“A long time ago,” I began, “there was a man who so thoroughly despised one of his associates that he came to view him as an enemy and desire his death. With time, these dark feelings reached such a pitch that he approached a shady colleague who gave him the names of several assassins.”

Most versions of the parable specify the number of assassins (usually three) and many name the characters, especially the assassins. I’ve never seen the value of giving too many specifics when telling parables or jokes. It is impossible to know what associations a name will have for your readers or listeners. You also run the risk of inadvertently giving a character the same name as someone in your audience. The number of assassins is usually given as three in order to set up a Goldilocks scenario where the first two assassins describe methods and fees that are too extreme for the the man’s purpose in opposing ways. The first assassin, for instance, charges less but uses a gun or, worse still, a bomb; the second assassin, meanwhile, uses an untraceable poison but charges too much. This device has always struck me as old-fashioned and at odds with the essence of the parable.

“The man spoke to the assassins, asking about their fees and methods. He was not a wealthy man but he wanted the assassination to be subtle. The man’s hatred was deep but he wanted to escape punishment and any feelings of responsibility. Ideally, the death should appear natural. At the very least it should not be sordid. At last, he settled on the least expensive of the assassins who, despite charging much less than the others, guaranteed that the death would not raise suspicion. The assassin’s only condition was that he be allowed to set his own timeline. The man, who had achieved a certain satisfaction by acting on his wish to have his associate killed, did not especially care when the assassination occurred. ‘It will happen soon enough,’ the assassin promised.”

At this point many versions include some dialogue between the man and the assassin, the man asking what the assassin’s weapon will be and the assassin answering in the language of a riddle: “My weapon is quieter than a gun, sharper than a stiletto, subtler than poison, and more certain than all of these.” Or something along those lines. Another unnecessary flourish, in my opinion, that draws attention to a mystery that, if the story is told well,  should only be hinted at.

“The man waited but his enemy lived on. Months went by but the man’s enemy seemed to go on living his life in the usual way. Finally, the man contacted the assassin and asked whether he had made any progress (asking politely, of course, for it is best to be polite to assassins). The assassin answered that fulfillment of the contract was on schedule but did not offer any other details. Years passed and the man’s enemy — so it seemed to the man — not only continued to live but seemed to be thriving. But the man’s own life had improved as well and one day he realized that the anger he felt towards his old enemy had dissipated. He contacted the assassin again and, when they met, asked him to cancel the contract: ‘I no longer bear any ill will towards the man I hired you to kill. The offensive actions that prompted me to desire his death now seem mere trifles. Some have even proven to been to my benefit. I am asking you now to cancel our contract.’ The assassin said nothing.”

Here I decided to add an exchange my father always included when he told the parable as a sort of tribute to his mentor:

“‘I see now that this was the purpose behind your delay: you used myeagerness to see this man killed to force me to pay attention to his life. By delaying his death you forced me to appreciate his life and to understand that my own anger was fleeting and petty. You have saved me from the consequences of my own anger and I thank you. I would like to reward you with a bonus.’

“The assassin nodded but his eyes showed no sign of agreement. He said, ‘You mistake me, sir. I have not sought to teach you any lessons or reveal anything to you about your motives. The contract stands and will be fulfilled.’ The man was horrified and pleaded for the contract to be annulled but the assassin only rose from his seat and left. For a long time the man waited with a feeling of dread and guilt that his former enemy would die and that would be responsible. He considered warning his former enemy or alerting the authorities but he feared that violating his contract with the assassin would only lead to his own death. Besides he knew nothing of when or how the assassination was to take place and doubted that anyone would take him seriously. Gradually, he convinced himself to doubt that the assassination action would ever occur.

“Decades passed. The man had all but forgotten that he had once hired an assassin. Only occasionally did he remember and wonder if the contract had been fulfilled — the man he had wanted killed had moved to another city years before — or if the assassin himself was still alive. Then one afternoon as the man sat in his wheelchair in the flowering garden of a nursing home an orderly brought him an envelope. In it was an obituary cut from a newspaper published in another city. The obituary stated that the man’s former enemy had died in his sleep at the age of eighty-five. Attached to the obituary with a paper clip was a yellowing copy of his contract with the assassin that had been stamped with the words ‘Fulfilled.’

The man lived another four years before dying one morning at the age of 90 following a long battle with kidney disease.”

I paused and put my hands on the desk to signal that I was done. I had added the specifics in the last sentence (borrowed from my grandfather’s own death) myself. Usually the man’s death was simply attributed to “natural causes” but I preferred to end the story with these details to add some prosaic realism.

“Thank you,” my client said, raising his head from the listening posture it had assumed: shoulders hunched, chin tucked, left ear cheated in my direction. “You tell the story well, as I knew you would.”

Advertisements

Detective Story #8 – Shavasana

I was tired. It had been a long day—a good day, but long. I sat at my desk and listened to the disembodied murmur of the instructor’s voice coming through the wall from the yoga studio next door. I couldn’t hear the words but I recognized the tone: a slow, loose chant to ease a roomful of pupils through the intricacies of Shavasana, their final position. Corpse pose. My lethargy deepened. Chin in palm, I gazed out the window at dimming dusklight between buildings.

Corpse pose. I stood up behind my desk, grimacing with the pleasure of stretching my legs and straightening my back. I slid the empty client’s chair into the far corner, noting, for the hundredth time, that its turquoise upholstery was wearing thin and needed to be replaced. I returned to the center of the room, slid off my clogs, and knelt down on the carpet, slowly capsizing onto my back. I lay there, arms and legs at 45-degree angles, looking up at the texture of the ceiling.

I closed my eyes, letting the sounds of burgeoning night-life recede until only the instructor’s voice remained, audible but indiscernible. I knew the words were irrelevant, merely a vessel for her hushed, lulling cadence—and even that didn’t matter. All that mattered was sinking into myself, settling into the floor below, feeling the fullness of the moment that would never end. Inhaling quiet, exhaling quietude. The muffled murmur droned on, quieter now, as I drifted loose: adrift and drifting, drifty; floating slow, unruffled and calm in a sea of thought; not asleep, not awake, dusk of mind . . .

Above me, behind me, back in the world I heard I heard three quick, staccato knocks followed by silence, then the slow creak of the door. Even with eyes closed I knew who it was. There were two steps, then a pause. I could hear his wry smile as he said:  “Hey, little sister. Asleep on the job again?”

I squinted my lips into a smile and stayed as I was.

“Hello,” I said, “was I expecting you . . .?”
“Not for me to say, really. But yes: this is an impromptu visit. Bad time?”
“Not at all . . .”
“Is this corpse pose or are you just being weird?”
“A little of both . . .” I was in a place where everything I said seemed to end in ellipses.

I heard shifting, two thuds, a rustle, a creak that I could feel through the floorboards beneath my head and shoulders, then a faint brushing against my hair as he settled on the floor, the top of his head touching mine.

We lay there for awhile, joined at the head like two stray figures cut from a paper doll chain. The voice stopped. There was a moment of silence, a whispered chorus of Namastes, then the resumption of routine as the pupils rolled up their mats and filtered into the hall, their entangled words becoming briefly distinct, then fading down the stairwell.

Then my brother and I savored the shared silence.

” . . .”
” . . .”
” . . .”
” . . .”
” . . .”
” . . .”

I said, “So, what brings you here?”
“Oh, nothing in particular. Been running errands and thought I’d drop in.”

I rubbed my closed eyes and enjoyed the slow motion fireworks of bursting color it created behind my eyelids.

“I hear you’re working on a case for dad,” he said.
“I am. A suicide motive case.”
“No note?” He asked.
“There was a note. It said ‘This is easier’ and nothing else.”
“Sounds like an open-and-shut-case to me. Who can argue with that?”
“You know clients—it’s always about the details; the specifics. Easier than what?”

He sighed. Or exhaled. Or maybe grunted. It could be difficult to tell with him sometimes.

“Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” I said, “You can even ask me another one.”

An old family joke. He let it pass.

“Do you ever wish you had bigger cases; investigations like the ones detectives get in books and movies?”

It wasn’t his usual sort of question. It was more like a question my father would ask, only without my father’s judgmental tone.

“Why do you ask?”
“I’m teaching my course on detective fiction again this semester and I was struck by how different the cases are in the novels we read:  adultery, blackmail, kidnapping, murder . . .”
“I handle adultery cases.”
“Sort of,” he said.

Even with closed eyes and wedges of color pulsing through my personal darkness I could see the expression on his face. It said: You handle adultery cases the way someone building a sandcastle handles the sea.

“I’m not judging, Nadie. Not at all.”
“I know.”
“I’m genuinely curious. Do you ever wish your cases were bigger or more dramatic or do you prefer the minutiae?”

Part of the answer was obvious—and I knew he already knew what my answer would be—but the question was still worth considering. So I considered it until he answered for me:

“I suppose the answer is written on the wall behind your desk. All your cases, no matter how small they may seem, are just clues in the biggest case of all. And I see the truth in that—I always have. Life is a crime—for lack of a better word—that is perpetually in progress. The clues are infinite and forever compounding. There is no way to truly solve the mystery you have set for yourself because it keeps growing to encompass everything that happens everywhere and all the time—including your own efforts. Your investigation is always part of the mystery, just another clue.”

I laughed and felt the hair at the tops of our heads mingle.

“You missed your calling,” I said.
“I always do. Missing callings is my calling.”
I chuckled knowingly. He’d never summed himself up quite so well before.
“Still,” I said, “I’m impressed. I’ve been trying to explain this to dad for years.”
“I struggle with the same issue as a teacher of literature,” he said. “Percy Shelley makes this argument that all of literature is one long text that is forever in progress. That text, it seems to me, is the closest thing we have to an instruction manual for life—and it’s impossible to read it all. I’ve studied and taught the subject for years and have only become more acutely aware of how little I’ve read; how much I’ve forgotten of what I have read. And every day there are new books. But you’ve set yourself the even larger task of trying to solve the mystery that all of those books are struggling to address . . .”

I laughed again.

“You make it sound a little pointless.”
“I make it sound a lot pointless. Because it is. Utterly. Still worth trying, though. ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp’ and all that.”

One of his favorite quotations. Browning. Or what’s a heaven for?

“I think I might have a mystery for you,” he said.
“Really?” I was so surprised I almost opened my eyes.
“It’s been with me for many years; I’ve tried to live with it, tried to figure it out but I can’t seem to make any progress. Maybe you’ll have more luck.”
“I’ll do my best . . .”
“I guess it’s really two mysteries. Possibly more.”
“Mysteries do have a tendency to multiply.”
“They do, don’t they?”

He didn’t speak for a second, so I prompted him:

“And the first mystery?”
“I don’t know what the first mystery is,” he said, “I know it’s there, unsolved, unanswered, generating clues . . . But I have no idea what it is.”

I made a mental note on an imaginary pad: ?

Then I said: “The first mystery is to figure out what your mystery is.”
“Yes,” he said. His voice had grown tight and raspy.

A clock ticked. Traffic whirred. Night fell.

“Well,” I said, still not moving, still not opening my eyes, “What are the clues?”

Detective Story #7 — In Other Words

My first thought was that she had made a mistake.

She walked into my office at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning but she was dressed for a Saturday night. Her hair was bleachy blonde, chin length and messy in that cultivated way that takes time and effort. She was the second client I’d had in the last month who was dressed all in black: black tights, black mini-skirt, black low-heel pumps; a black waistcoat cut in a fancifully military style (complete with epaulettes) that parted to reveal a black top with black sequins across the top. It was a real accomplishment matching that much black clothing, especially in a way that withstood the unforgiving light of morning. Even more impressive, her top was satin and so far as I could see, without a single wrinkle.

Many believe that the basic unit of detective work is being able to observe a person and make deductions about their character based on what they are wearing or how they behave. There is no question that this is a valuable skill. Sometimes, though, it is more useful to ignore appearances because they reveal nothing of value. Like beauty, style and fashion can be great deceivers. They are too easily seen to be truly observed.

Sometimes, the first clue we come across only makes sense later on, when we have more information. So, just as the best way to remember a word or name we have failed to call to mind during conversation is to continue talking until, through the natural channels of speech and thought, it quietly returns to us, the best practice with a clue that commands too much attention without yielding insight is to ignore it until other clues arrive to provide context.

As it turned out, however, this wasn’t a case of lacking the information to understand an important clue. Instead, I had made the equally common mistake of assigning too much importance to the first clue I happened to come across. In fact, once she explained her case, I realized it had been a mistake to attach any importance at all to her hair, clothes, and make-up.

“I want you to find the perfect word to describe this feeling I’ve been having,” she said once she had settled into the chair opposite my desk.

I sat back and thought for awhile.

“This poses an interesting challenge,” I said, “since first you’ll have to describe to me how you feel . . .”
“Totally,” she said, drawing out the middle of the word so it became a groan.
“Let’s start by trying to set some parameters for what sort of word you’re hoping I’ll find.”
“Okay,” she said, nodding.
“First off, do you want an English word or would something from another language work as well?”
“Well, I’d love it if you could find an English word. Even a phrase would be fine. But I’m guessing it will have to be a foreign word or phrase.”
“German is probably our best bet, then,” I said, making a note.
“Maybe,” she said slowly, tilting her head to follow her eyebrows in a leftward gesture of skepticism.
“German,” I ventured, “is a language that seems to specialize in words meant to describe highly specific feelings and mental states.’
“Oh, totally,” she said nodding so vigorously that the sequins on her dress gave a couple sparkly ripples. “I’m just skeptical because I’ve spent a ton of time looking at German words for just that reason.”
“So you’ve already been researching this for awhile?”
“At least a year.”
“Any language will do,” I said absently as I made a note.
“Well, I’d like to steer clear of Klingon,” she said.
The joke took a second to register before I laughed.
“Fair enough,” I said as I added several new sheets of paper to my clipboard and leaned back in my chair. “So: tell me about this feeling . . .”
“I don’t feel this way all the time,” she said, “but it is a very specific state of mind that I experience on a regular basis — maybe two or three days out of every week?”

I nodded, made another note.

“For the most part I am not really an upbeat sort of person. Even when I was a little girl I’d have extended periods of sadness, or just feel this sort of mild hopelessness all the time. My doctor says I’m probably dysthymic but I’m not medicated or anything. I haven’t even gone to a psychiatrist.”

She paused and I wrote some more, making my best guess at how to spell dysthymic.

“But for the last two years I’ve had these bursts of feeling that are totally different from my usual range of moods. Nothing super-weird . . . Just different and unexpected.”

“And how would you characterize this feeling?”

She paused, sighed, then gave a little closed-mouth chuckle.

“I’ve tried to describe this so many times. To friends. To family. In emails. In my diary. I keep hoping I’ll stumble across the perfect word but . . .” she paused, took a meditative breath, then went on: “For days, even weeks, at a time I will go along feeling as though I am on the verge of something new—like I’m standing at a door with my fingers twisting the doorknob until I can feel the . . . the . . .” she frowned and rolled her eyes, turning an imaginary knob with her fingers as she searched for the right word, “the . . . tumbler gives way. Is that right: tumbler?”

“I think you mean latch,” I said, “the part that retracts. Locks have tumblers.”
“Okay: like I’m at a door, and I’ve twisted the knob until the latch is completely retracted and I can feel the door hanging free in the doorway and the only thing keeping it closed is me — not by choice, only because in that final instant of turning the knob to open the door I am actually holding it closed. Do you know what I mean? Like it’s one of those loose old doors that creaks open unless it’s all the way closed with the latch snapped in place —but once you twist the knob the only reason the door stays closed is because you’re still holding the knob. Like it’s floating there on hinges held in place by your hand. Does that make sense?”

It did, so I nodded and said, “Would you describe this as a positive feeling?”
“Yes, definitely,” and her sequins rippled some more, “My feelings about what’s on the other side of the door are really positive. Anticipation doesn’t quite cover it. I have this feeling of hope, even euphoria—or maybe bliss is a better word. My feelings tend to shift.”
“Impatient?”
“A little, sometimes. But this is where the door analogy kind of breaks down. I’m totally aware that I can’t control when the door opens.”

She frowned again and scrunched up her nose. She tugged at her waistcoat.

“That’s not right either,” she said, “I know I can’t control when the moment is right to open the door . . . I guess it’s like when you’re standing in front of an elevator door and you know the elevator is there but you just have to wait a second or two longer until the doors actually open.”

She thought for a moment, then smiled and said, “I like that. If you can find a word for when someone is just waiting for the doors to an elevator that has already arrived to open, that would work for me.”

I tugged at my ear and nodded.

She said, “But that part about turning the doorknob is still important. The door is there and I can hear what’s coming on the other side, maybe even see some light coming through the cracks and gaps, but it hasn’t arrived yet, so even though I can turn the knob and . . . and feel the freedom of the door, there’s just no way to open it until the other side is ready.”

Feeling the freedom of the door. I knew that freedom—or a detective’s version of it: that feeling that I was on the edge of some vital new clue that would deepen not only my understanding of whatever small mystery I was working on, but also the larger mystery that permeates everything. Sometimes I was convinced such moments were what I loved most about being a detective. Those instants before a key piece of information arrives, when the next clue could be anything . . .

“Anyway,” she said, “I don’t want to get fixated on this door analogy. People do that, you know: get hung up on analogies because they help us think through problems that feel too abstract —or that we just don’t understand well enough. The problem is we get stuck on the particulars of the analogy; like some sort of fetish. Which is why I want a word for this feeling of mine.”
“One could argue that words are just a sort of analogy,” I said.
“Yes, I’ve thought of that,” she nodded quickly, “but words become less particular the more we use them. That’s what a cliche is, if you think about it: an analogy that works so well people start using it like a word. There are even some words that are basically just cliches, analogies we don’t even notice anymore. Even the word metaphor: it comes from the Greek word for transport. The idea is that we transport a word or phrase from one context to another but no one thinks about transport when they talk about metaphors — except maybe in Greece where the word metaphor is on the side of moving trucks.”
“So, what,” I asked, “do you hope to accomplish by finding a word for this feeling you’ve described? Do you hope that the word will help you control the feeling or diminish it in some way? Do you hope knowing the word will help make that elevator arrive a little faster?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that. That all sounds really superstitious to me. I’m just trying to be practical. I want to express what I’m feeling as precisely as possible, even if it sends people to the dictionary.”
“In other words, you’d like to be able to shorten the length of conversations like this one?”
“Precisely.”