Homage to Catatonia

A Loving Catalog of Orphaned Ideas.

Category: Moments & Scenes

Detective Story #3 — Love Case

“I want you to investigate my love life,” he said.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s nowhere.”
“What do you mean? Be specific.”
He opened his mouth but didn’t say anything, so I went on.
“Here’s why I’m asking: a couple years ago I had a client come in with basically the same request. ‘Investigate my love life; it sucks.’ So, I spent a week doing intensive surveillance of his life, watching his interactions. Turns out the guy is afraid to talk to women. No big mystery there. I’m not so hard up for billable time that I need to follow you around for a week watching you sit in restaurants silently pining for waitresses.”

I thought he might be offended but, from his slight pout, I could see he was disappointed to learn he was not the first person to come to me with this kind of request. When you’re a private detective who routinely focuses on the mundane and quotidian (my active cases at the moment included helping one client find her keys) it’s to be expected that clients struggling with matters of with heart will come through the door.

“Do you get a lot of cases like this?” He asked.
I forget sometimes that, while most women who come in to see me feel better knowing their situation isn’t unusual, many male clients need to feel their case is one-of-a-kind. I suppose it makes them feel better about asking for help.

“Do I get a lot of requests to investigate a client’s love life?”
He nodded.
“You could say I investigate little else.”

He became openly disappointed, deflated. I had to admit I was enjoying myself. A little too much. I decided to give him a break.

“Infidelity—real or imagined—is the bread and butter of most private detective agencies.”

Love cases have more dark corners than any other kind of investigation and adultery is one of the darkest of these but everyone thinks of adultery as tawdry and unoriginal. I would have bet $23.80 that he wasn’t an adultery case: no ring and none of the rumpled clothes and bloodshot eyes that are tell-tale signs of a jealous lover. And I was right. He lightened visibly, his body raised back up like time-lapse footage of a wilting plant played in reverse.

Life is a mystery and these are the clues: now that he felt unique again he leaned back in his chair and spent the next few minutes being a pompous ass.

His speech fell into a four-part structure that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been asked for a favor by someone who tries to mask their embarrassment by making their request sound more important than it is.

Part One – Invocation of the muse. A sort of throat clearing as he pretended to give me a sketch of himself and his situation while working up the courage to ask me to do whatever it was he wanted me to do.
Part Two – Background. A clumsy but more detailed repetition of Part One that basically amounted to an (implied) admission that he’d been in a couple long-term relationships over the years but was now single again. And lonely.
Part Three – Substance of the Request. Before stating it clearly (due to some gentle guidance from me) he stated it vaguely and at length with still more repetitions, several prefatory justifications and qualifications, and even an apology or two.
Part Four – Conclusion. A messy and entirely unnecessary re-statement of everything mentioned above with one or two new details that were given undeserved significance and urgency, all in an attempt to delay hearing whatever my answer was going to be.

It all boiled down to this sentence—or would have if he had actually expressed himself this clearly: “I’ve been dating a lot lately (mostly meeting women online) and I’m struggling with the casualness of it all, so I’d like you to investigate these women and let me know if any of them are interested in something long term.”

“In general? Or with you in particular?”
“With me in particular.”
I nodded and made a note.
“Is that something you can handle?” He said.
I smiled, then said, “I think so. How many women are we talking about”
The number was a little surprising. I had expected him to say two. He seemed like a binary kind of guy. Then again, the mind is most comfortable with threes, so I suppose it made sense that he would ask for help when he hit four. Either way, I wondered what sort of man could be dating four women and say his love life was nowhere.

“Okay,” I said, “I want to begin by observing you on a date with each woman. I’ll be honest with you: while this gives me a chance to see if there is any obvious chemistry, my main reason is to ensure that these are women you actually know and are already dating.”

He nodded a bit too vaguely for my taste.

“I want to be clear,” I said slowly, pausing for emphasis. “I will not investigate any women I do not see you meet with for a date—public setting, actual conversing, at least an hour. These need to be women who know you and trust you enough to meet you on their own time.”

“I understand,” he said, looking chastened and affronted. That was a good sign. The innocent always look chastened in the face of accusations (even implied ones) because they tend to search themselves for guilt and rarely hold themselves blameless. Then they look affronted because they resent not only the false accusation but also having been forced to search themselves in this way.

Still, expressions are difficult to read.

“Maybe you do understand,” I said, hoping to send his conscience on another expedition, “but I want to be sure this gets through. In the past clients have hired me to ‘investigate their love life’ when all they really want to do is outsource their stalker tendencies. Not that I’m talking about out and out sociopaths—just shy losers who wanted me to see if any of their crushes were reciprocated by invading the privacy of the women they were interested in. It usually takes about three or four hours to figure out what’s going on and I resent the waste of my time.”

“I understand,” he said again, this time in an assuring tone that felt genuine even as it carried undertones of impatience. His conscience had already cleared him and he was ready to move on.

“Again, just to be clear: most of the information I gather I will keep to myself. In other words, I will share my conclusions with you but not much else. Don’t expect me to provide you with a dossier about each of these women. I’ll do some digging and observing but all you’ll get from me is conclusions: yes; no; maybe.”
“That’s all I care about.”
“Finally,” I said, “I should tell you that there is a much easier and cheaper way to go about this.”
“Women talk,” I said.
“To each other, you mean?”
“Well, yes,” I acknowledged, “but they also talk to you. Especially if you ask them things. You’re already dating these four women—asking them directly what they’re looking for is much easier and probably more accurate than paying me. At least one or two of them is likely to appreciate it.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he said without much conviction.
“But. . .” I prompted him.
He smiled, “But I’d like to know who is interested in a long-term relationship before I start having those conversations.”

Detective Story #1 — These Are The Clues

Life is a mystery and these are the clues: a woman (thirty-five) seated at a desk opposite an empty chair; a ticking clock.

Then the clues change. Or stay the same but rearrange themselves around a new clue: approaching footsteps on creaking stairs. Male by the sound. Heavy, dense steps with little of the tapping that comes from most women’s footwear, though I’m guessing. The interval between steps could probably be used to estimate height.

More steps, more clues. Will they stop at the door? Will they continue to the left, as most do, to the modeling agency? Or to the right to the empty office where the accountant used to be. The steps stop. A silhouette (male, almost certain now) through the frosted, dimpled glass. Then a knock.

Life is a mystery, these are the clues: a man in his forties wearing khaki pants, a black polo shirt (tucked in) and black sneakers walks into a detective agency with a book in his hand.

It’s a Saturday so he hasn’t come from work and this is, presumably, the way he thinks you should dress when you see a private detective on our your own time.

We exchange hellos and I gesture to the empty seat in front of me. He has short, dark brown hair that is graying above the ears. Blue eyes gaze out from behind little round, brown, tortoise-shell glasses. His expression is almost cartoonishly neutral: his lips flatlining across the bottom of his face.

I smile and ask how I can be of service.

He leans forward slightly and places the book on the desk between us.

“I’d like you to find the previous owner of this book,” he says and nods at the book.

I lean forward. Life is a mystery and this is a clue: a slender hardbound book without a dustjacket. I am not familiar with the title or its author: Peter Bunton Fulmerford, Out of Tomorrow’s Darkness. I open it, flip through the pages. Quality paper, the last numbered page is 153, the first page has a price written lightly in soft pencil: “15—”.

“There isn’t an ex libris stamp or anything like that,” he says and I worry that he thinks I’ve assumed he hasn’t checked for the obvious. But his voice is as neutral as his expression.

Taking care not to sound defensive, I say: “I assume that if you are serious enough to come to a detective you would have thought to inspect the book for any obvious indications of the previous owner.”

He nods and says, “No ex-libris stamp, no business card for a bookmark, no inscription, no marginalia. Unless there’s something written in invisible ink.”

I chuckle.

“So,” I asked, “may I ask why you’re interested in locating the previous owner if he or she left no noticeable markings on this book?”
“Well, there actually is a kind of marking—to use your word. Press your nose to its pages.”
I did.
“Do you smell it?”

I did. It wasn’t necessary press my nose to the pages, though I did for a few seconds. The aroma was strong but difficult to describe or comprehend. A hint of vanilla, perhaps. Or honeysuckle. Something citrusy, too. Lemon? Lime? Orange zest? The scents dovetailed into each other and drifted in and out as I tried to identify them. Compared to the eyes, the nose is an imprecise instrument.

Nevertheless, I chastised myself. Detection is the business of observation and observation is the business of all five senses. Six, some would argue. I had perceived the scent, momentarily, but I had not observed it. I had not, in truth, really noticed it. Clues are not merely pieces of the puzzle, they are puzzles in themselves. This clue contained smaller clues just as every mystery, once solved, becomes a clue in the larger mystery: Life.

Isolated Moments

What she liked best about the apartment was the fact that it was next to a little restaurant and she could hear the clinking of dishes whenever she liked.

It seemed to her that the waitress was refilling his glass of water with flirtatious frequency.

He said: “With you it’s always ‘never’!”
“No, you’re exaggerating,” she replied. “It’s just never ‘always.'”

The little girl looked up at her mother and said, “A roof is a lid, right?”

An Opening Scene?

A man visits an acquaintance’s home for the first time.  Maybe he is just dropping by to pick something up from a co-worker or maybe it would be more interesting if he is waiting while his date gets ready in the next room. Whatever the circumstances, he looks around the room for awhile . . . curious but trying not to be nosy. Maybe he sits on the couch for awhile and leafs through a magazine. Or maybe he fusses with a house plant. Inevitably, he begins browsing through the collection of books that are stuffed into an old, particle board bookcase in the corner of the room. At first, he is impressed by the titles. He has many of the same books in his own collection. He is surprised to find that one of the books (by a recently deceased author) is autographed — just like his own copy. He looks more closely at the books and realizes that he has all of the same titles in his collection at home and that they are arranged in the same order. Even the editions of each book are identical to his own. The same Penguin Classics, the same Norton Critical editions, the same hardbacks, the same paperbacks. He opens a copy of one of his favorite books and finds that the same passages are underlined in the same way — lightly, with a soft pencil.

A Scene

“Why are you drinking your latte so slowly?” She asked. “Usually you just gulp them down.”

He pushed the cup across the table. It was almost empty and quivering near the dregs was an especially delicate leaf pattern, almost sepia in color, that the barrista had fashioned from the foam of the latte. By drinking carefully he had preserved the pattern even as he sipped the espresso and milk out from under it.

“We should all do what we can to preserve beauty in the world,” he said.


Person A makes insulting remark at Person B’s expense.

Person B closes his/her eyes and breathes deeply, then counts backward from 12.

Person A: What are you doing?

Person B: Not punching you in the face.