11.05.2008

Cooking with Arsenic - full first chapter

Cooking with Arsenic

Chapter 1
Port

From my office, I can see Los Angeles Harbor. It's not a corner office or anything. It's just high enough to be a pain to get into, and just low enough never to be mistaken for prestigious. It has one window that looks out over the Pacific Electric building, then out to the crooked beach of the San Pedro turning basin. My desk doesn't face my office door, like I want it to, because I like looking out at the ocean. The port is always busy these days. A few frigates, maybe even a destroyer are docked there, the less-important cousins of others under repair at Midway and Hawaii, bombed or no. I have my desk sidelong to the door.
Sometimes, in my more heroic moods, I like to think of some half-hearted crook busting open the door, screaming revenge, firing misguided shots through my window, while I crouched behind my impenetrable desk, waited for the shooting to subside, and then arrested the poor, misguided sap. Of course, it would never happen. They'd never get past Mrs. Tummley. She worked for the library for fifty four years, before they made her retire. She works here through equal measures of generosity and spite. Generosity for my associates and I, McAven, Hartley, and Miller, private investigators. I'm Miller. Mrs. Tummley's spite is reserved for anyone who tells her when she should retire.
Suddenly, my door bursts open, and through it, comes a sight as surprising, though not as shocking, as a revenge-bent, crook-toothed monster with a gun. Through my door walks a beautiful blond, almost six feet, five feet of which is all legs. She has two of them. They're each about two and half feet. Six feet of legs. Basic math. I can still feel the radiant heat of Mrs. Tummley's spite like an aura around her. Mrs. Tummley does not extend her generosity to blonds.
“What'cha thinkin?” She asks, interrupting my repose. She's chewing gum.
“Narrating my life.” I respond. I have to work on making it less obvious I'm thinking.
“Always said you'd best stop watching those movies.” She replies. Typical female attitude. “How's it coming?”
“Fine. I was just thinking about how a beautiful blond walked through my door, almost six feet tall.”
“Why do I have to be a six foot blond? You don't like the way I look?” The petite fiery redhead says, who is now luxuriating in one of the sadly bestained chairs which flotsam my office.
“I'm translating.” I reply, wincing at the extra stain of rivet-driver grease she's added to one of the less stained charis. “You have to be that way for the audience to understand how pretty you are.”
“I told you, you need to stop it with those movies. Used to be, people only thought they had an audience when they were on stage.”
“Not true.” I reply. She has abandoned her chair after a particularly bad creak, and re-positioned on my desk. She's trying to distract me. Crafty vixen. I carry on. “Since when were you so old, to be speaking of “back in the day?” Besides, you know very well that Chaucer and Shakespeare both were extremely audience-conscious, off stage as well as on. Homer probably was too, and Plato, well, obviously.”
“I'm three months older than you.” she replies. “And they weren't wasting the precious little time of their girl's lunch break.”
“True enough.” I reply. “Were would you like to go today?”
“Can't.” She says. “Have to get back, and I ate on the way here.”
“As always.” I say, feigning disappointment. I would be disappointed, don't get me wrong – it just happens too often for any real feeling. She remains unconvinced of my disappointment, and in a movement of the utmost aggression, kisses me squarely upon the nose before braving the spite of Mrs. Tummley, swinging herself, lithe out of my office. As I snatch at a last few glimpses of her through my glass door, a young man, sadly, of obviously foreign origin pushes through the door, and heads directly for my office. It has the discouraging characteristic of being closest to the door, and most visible as one enters. On his way, his ankle meets the ankle of Mrs. Tummley. He trips, and falls, very nearly smacking his head against my glass door. Thankfully, Mrs. Tummley's aim is better than that, and he misses. Her ankle will be fine. I have known for some time she does not approve, indeed, she retains her deepest, most horrifying spite for those who underestimate the power of the secretary.
The man, however, seems distracted enough not to care. He scrambles to his feet, his smooth-soled shoes clacking on the hardwood floor. He dives into my office, like the last man onto the lifeboat, and takes a moment to buoy himself by the door, his eyes scrambling momentarily for me, returning twice to the middle of the room, where my desk, it seems, ought to be. He blinks twice, his eyelids seeming to make a clack similar to his shoes. He does not seem truly at rest until I stand.
“Come in.” I say. “Have a seat.” I glance outside. Mrs. Tummley is glaring at me, now, hoping against hope I will eject this poor, bedraggled, and well-heeled (if not well-soled) individual, putting him back at her mercy.
“Mister McAven?” He asks.
“No, Mr. Miller.” I reply. He looks disappointed.
People seem to eternally have the wrong idea about this. Why is it that a company of private investigators is always thought to have the most senior member in full view of the door? What other company commits such heresy and foolishness? Besides this, Mr. McAven isn’t actually the longest-standing member of the company, that would be Mr. Hartley. Mr. Hartley started Hartley, private investigations, in 1917. He made his fame investigating and providing sound legal advice for liquor merchants, especially the smaller ones, and for investigating the divorces of Hollywood movie stars. Mr. Hartley was one of the first private investigators in Los Angeles, and one of the most trusted. That our sweaty friend sitting across from me did not know Mr. Harley ran the business indicated that his fine shoes were not bought with movie-cash. Mr. Hartley added Mr. McAven in 1937, when he began to see the great assistance an experienced lawyer could add to the investigative process. Mr. McAven had been especially impressive in the Roman Strauss affair. He retired shortly after that sordid affair. It was only two years later Mr. Hartley and Mr. McAven added Mrs. Tummley, when McAven and Hartley was becoming a liferaft for the retired but not tired.
During this time, Mr. Hartley had never underestimated the assistance of a young pair of legs, or arms, and had provided part and full time gainful employment to any number of young men, and for that matter, young women, which was how I found my first employment here. You see, McAven and Hartley, at the time, hired a young lady to do secretarial work, a young lady who held in her lips and long, long legs the hope of most of the junior and senior classes at my high school, along with the daydreams of more than a few of the freshmen and sophomore types. My working for Hartley was a way of impressing her. In the fire and passion of my love, I ended up impressing him more, working a number of jobs, some of which have something to do with my unfortunate juvenile record, others with my unexpected acceptance at Stanford. I returned to work for him all three summers of my college education, giving me the opportunity to regale the young and influential of Stanford my very own Dashiell Hammett stories, ever so slightly, well, translated. When I graduated, my graduation present from the one who could only be described as a secondary father figure was the offer of a full partnership, and the opportunity, should I so choose, to hire my very own young lackeys to do the heavy lifting. Mr. Hartley has taken the addition of another partner to mean that he can begin his own retirement, if only partially, though the advent of the war has attracted him again to our offices. He has been fascinated, as have we all by the special problems in investigation provided by the essentially gypsy class of military men, and the tight self-protecting organization of the military. Most of our business now comes from a variety of night-club owners and businessmen seeking various reparations for damages done by visiting military men, who seem to do as good a job trashing Los Angeles as they have ever done to the pacific islands.
Which brings us back to our poor sweating friend here. Interesting, he sits crooked. That, and his age, explain his being here rather than on some Asian island. Excuse the long description, I know it’s out of character, it probably won’t become important later, but it’s my life, I find it interesting, and I’m not old enough yet to be terse and cynical.
“May I see Mister Hartley?” he asks. His accent is of garden-variety school-taught. Not indigenous. Interesting.
“It’s possible, but it would require pleading with Misses Tummley.”
“Miss Tummley?”
I nod towards the reception area. Our friend turns several shades of pale, interesting to only but the most jaded of anthropologists. “Don’t worry.” I assure him, “I can help.”
I see his face recover, the white grimace easing into a tan dour. I know it’s my charm and respectability that help. I try to remind myself that charm and respectability don’t mean squat with a bullet between your ears and a drunk tax accountant – or wife – standing over your body, screaming about tariff law. More horrifyingly, charm doesn’t matter when faced by an IRS agent. It is a long-standing law of the universe that no one can charm an IRS agent. That is the whole basis of American government, and the reason they are the most feared men in the world.
“But.” I say, dramatically, “I would have to know how first. And a name might help as well.”
He stutters for a moment, then manages “John Smith.”
“Very well, Mr. Smith.” I say, giving no indication of incredulity, except the absence of any raised eyebrow. “How can I be of service?”
He ponders for a moment. Sits back. Sighs. Ponders. Lights a cigarette. Shakes it. Draws. I put my feet on the desk.
“You can…”
“Yes?”
“It would be of great help, if you – if Mister Hartley – could meet me, and a friend, at the end of Apple street, at 9:30 tonight.”
“He’ll want more details before he accepts an invitation.”
“A matter of national security.”
“What sort of matter?”
“Of some delicacy.”
“Matters of national security, in my experience, are rarely matters for delicacy.” What the hell do I know? I’ve never been involved in a matter of national security in my life, unless you count the governor’s affair, and that’s a different matter.
“I don’t think you are in any position to comment.”
“Well done. You called my bluff.” Best to just own up to it. “I still insist upon knowing.”
“My wife has several times gone to bed with a certain Admiral.” Hardly a matter of national security. But typical of a jealous husband. “Not that I mind, you understand. I can trust you to be discreet?”
“Of course.”
“And this Admiral, he has disclosed certain secrets.” Could this be on the level? “I am concerned such activities may continue, and may threaten the fiber of this nation. Loose lips, and all that, you understand.”
“Very much so. What would you like us to do about it?”
“You know the Navy.”
“Yes.”
“Then you know their, say, penchant for protecting their own?”
“All too well.”
“How much stronger do you think it would be, with an Admiral in the docket?”
“Yes.”
“Yes indeed. I must go now. Cannot be late back to work. Sir, I trust this message to you, I trust you to get it to Mister Hartley. Apple street. 9:30. Tonight. You understand the necessity of his involvement.”
“I’ll pass him the message.”
“Very well. I bid you good day.”
We shook hands. Very small hands he had. He managed a smile, and I once again felt the soothing glow of Mrs. Tummley’s spite as he exited the office. I took a minute to review the facts in my head, then exited my office as well. Mrs. Tummley’s glow combined in both spite and generous patronship. Spite for my friendliness to intruders, patronship for the obvious reasons.
“Misses Tummley, my favorite woman above thirty.”
“You have a lot of favorites under thirty.”
“True, but none so dependable and knowledgeable as yourself. Is the boss in?”
“He hates being called that.”
“I’m not calling him that. Not to his face at least. Is he in?”
“He is. What’s going on?”
“A matter of national security.”
“Ten years, and I still don’t learn never to ask.”
A pause too long, and I know I’m beaten, before the battle of wits has begun. I try anyway. “But if you didn’t ask, you’d miss out on all that gossip.”
Her victory dissolves the spite. She smiles.
“In any case, you can go in now.”
“Thanks.”
I head down the hallway towards Hartley’s office. On my right, an old oak door is cracked open, and I can see McAven bent over a tome the size of Belgium, in a comfortable chair. He could be sleeping, or reading, it’s hard to say. The same uncertainty had struck many a judge in court. McAven once told me that guilt is a great tool – a lesson well learned in private investigations. More than one unfriendly judge had fallen into guilt and then kindness after heartily reprimanding the old lawyer’s doze, only to find that he had “entered a state of repose so as to better focus upon your honor’s words.” Upon request, McAven could always repeat back the last several sentences of the proceedings. Whether this was simply an anomaly of his sleep, I still wonder. On my left, behind a closed door, is a conference room which becomes a partial office each afternoon for whatever part-time workers we employ. Sometimes, it’s a place the more bookish can come to study without being anti-social, and without the monotony and limited social options of the library. At the end of the hall is Hartley’s corner office. He offered it to McAven when McAven joined the company, but the elder man said the light and business out of the windows distracted from his reading – and probably from his sleeping as well. The door is cracked, but I knock anyway.
“Boss?” The door swings, silent and graceful, wider. Straight across from the door, he sits. A single, graying raised eyebrow reassures me that I’m still not really in trouble for calling him boss. It also tells me, and many people, that, though gray, he has not begun to droop with age. He is, as always, dressed impeccably. A suit of fine, light wool and mohair sheds the California sun, shimmering ever so slightly. Beneath it, a cotton vest with a subtle windowpane betrays a relaxed nature, at least, today. He is leaned back in his chair, reading some report submitted by one of our “junior partners.”
“What’s cracking, Jim?” He says, putting the report down.
“New case.”
“Sounds interesting from the commotion out there.”
“Might be. National security stuff, maybe another chance for you to show off just what idiots the Navy churns out and promptly aggrandizes.”
“Man thinks his wife is in bed with an Admiral, getting all sorts of secrets.”
“Did he have any proof?”
“Not that he mentioned. Most jealousies don’t come with delusions of grandeur.”
“It would seem self-contradictory. Did he seem jealous?”
“No, not particularly. He wants to meet you to talk it over, apparently, “He and a friend.” At the end of Apple street, tonight, 9:30.”
“Sounds dangerous.” This voice came from behind me. McAven had, among his overly well developed bag of lawyer tricks, the ability to creep silently, or to command attention by sound, entirely at will. He often used this ability to nearly hypnotize juries, sliding lithely over points not particularly helpful to his case, and pouncing upon the elements which the jury would later remember.
“Not particularly.” Hartley replied. “Actually, it sounds lovely. Your visitor, he was nervous?”
“As a…”
“Young man whose wit fails.” McAven supplied, unasked.
“But reticent?”
“Eh?”
“Of ungreased mouth.”
“Positively rusted shut.”
“Sounds like a good time for the second coming.”
“Haven’t we done that one a bit much? Besides, it’s it early for the second coming?” McAven was always the pessimist. His practice was based on it.
“Not at all. We’ve never used the second coming in anything attached to a military operation, and in this case, it’s probably best to strike first.”
“I still don’t trust it. I make it a habit to avoid teams that refuse to play on any field but their own.”
“Of course, but that’s exactly why the second coming exists. It exists because we don’t trust people. And I don’t think it’s too early, especially in matters of national security. In any case, it’s what I plan to do.”
We both knew better than to argue.

1 comment:

Grace Wallis said...

I'd buy it! (Maybe not at cover price...)

Many laughs...you heard them.

-The Wife