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Old 05-06-2002, 01:43 PM   #1
MeddlingMonk
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New story tease

Something I've been fooling around with lately...

---

Mid mornings are tough when you’ve got nothing doing. The papers are too thoroughly read to bother looking at any more, the junk on the desk doesn’t need to be tidied because you did that when you first came in to make space for the papers, and it’s too damn early to step out for lunch. So you just sit there on your pelvis going screwy because you’re to responsible to skip because, technically, you’re working. And you know perfectly well that if you do go out the door someone will come in two minutes later and you’ll lose business because when you’re out of the office the customer is just too impatient to wait. So I decide to fill my pipe because maybe I’ll find I’ve forgotten how and it’ll take half an hour to relearn and then maybe it’ll be late enough I can go out and grab a plate of watery spaghetti with a clear conscience.

Alive I never bothered with a pipe. It’s just more tackle than I needed. A pouch of tobacco, some papers and matches, and I was set. I never liked packaged cigarettes. The taste seemed off somehow but maybe it was all in my mind. But dead, rolling a cigarette was a little tricky—no tongue. I tried it for a while with the little damp sponge you use for stamps but it didn’t work out. Even supposing the cigarette wouldn’t untwist while you were getting the sponge, the sponge would almost always be too wet and you’d end up with a soggy cigarette. And if it didn’t fall apart you had to wait for it to dry out, nerves jangling all the while because you needed the nicotine. Not worth the hassle. I still didn’t care for packaged cigarettes and cigars were out because dicks and stogies don’t go together somehow, so that just left a pipe. Sherlock Holmes smoked a pipe so that made it OK.

While I’m lighting the pipe—an old battered cherrywood with an ebony mouthpiece—my secretary Jen lets herself into my office and shuts the door again behind her. She waits until I wave the match around to put it out before saying, “There’s a man out there that wants to see you, Frankie.”

“Yeah?” I asked, taking my first real puff. “Client?”

“Probably,” Jen said, still leaning back against the closed door. “He’s not carrying a case and he hasn’t said a word about my eternal soul.” She held herself a little stiffly, a sign she was annoyed.

“So who is this bird?”

“Says his name’s Roger Cutler. Fresh off the boat.”

“And already in trouble? That was quick work,” I said. “So what’s his story?”

Jen shrugged, a quick, sharp motion. “He won’t tell me. Says he’s gotta tell my boss because it’s extremely confidential.”

“You tell him you’re that kind of secretary? Never mind. Probably wouldn’t carry any weight. What’s your make on him?”

Jen shrugged again, this time a lazy roll, almost Gallic. “First impression...impatient, wants his own way, a little too sure of his own importance. The client may be more trouble than his case.”

I looked down the stem of my pipe, making sure the aim was true or something. “Can I afford to tell him where to get off if I have to?”

“Only if you really have to, you know?”

“Yeah. OK, angel, send him in.”

“Right,” Jen said, pulling away from the door to open it. “Mr. Wells will see you now,” she said to the man out of my view. She stood aside as a tall man in a well-tailored suit came in. She closed the door quietly behind her as she left.

I stood and held out my hand. “How do you do, Mr. Cutler?” I said. He tried to give my hand an overpowering shake. He was good and strong, but I held my ground.

“I’ve had better days, Mr. Wells,” he said as he released my hand and sat down in the chair in front of my desk.

I sat back down and quietly flicked a switch on the intercom, scraping my chair forward a little to cover the noise. I gave the man a quick glance. On the surface he looked like anyone else: a skeleton in clothes. But that invisible aura everyone gives off showed me someone who, in life, probably kept himself well groomed and was used to money and power, but in a cheap and vulgar way that said Businessman.

“I can imagine,” I said in response to his answer. “You’ve only just arrived?”

“A week ago,” Cutler said.

“That’s rough,” I said, “but you’ll settle in. So what’s this confidential matter you want to discuss? And start at the beginning.” I settled back into my chair and tried to look attentive.

“It’s very simple, Mr. Wells,” Cutler said a little sharply. “My wife is missing and I want you to find her. Those bureaucratic incompetents at the Department of Death can’t trace her and I’ve been here a week. You’ll have to do their job for them.”

“Well, you know Mr. Cutler, it’s not the DOD’s job to keep track of people once they’re here. Just how long ago did your wife die?”

“She died the same day I did,” Cutler said. “We were driving to...but I suppose that doesn’t matter now. There was an accident and we both were killed.”

I puffed on my pipe to look thoughtful. “Not to sound insensitive, but are you sure your wife is dead? I mean, that would account for your not finding her.”

Cutler gave the impression of a tight smile. “It would, but I’m very sure. When the reaper came for me, I could see my wife beside me wrapped in the same cords I had just been released from.”

I nodded. “Yes, that certainly clinches it. So, you were brought here first. Did you happen to see your wife’s reaper?” Cutler shook his head. “See another DOD car heading for the wreck on your way in?”

“No.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s not unusual but worth asking about anyway. Did you find out who was assigned to your wife’s case?”

“I’m not interested in the reaper, Mr. Wells,” Cutler said acidly. “Only in my wife.”

“Of course,” I said. “I just like to cover all the bases. So what have you done since you arrived?”

“First I waited in the lobby of the Bureau of Acquisitions building. After a couple of hours I tried to find out about my wife. No one knew anything but I was told to try the Bureau of Records downtown. I did and all those fools could tell me was that my wife’s case was still open. I’ve checked back frequently but no one can tell me a damn thing.”

“OK,” I said just to say something. “Well, let’s get some details.” I grabbed a pad of paper and a pencil. “Your wife’s name?”

“Sharon.”

“Maiden name?”

“Why on earth do you want to know that?”

I shrugged. “Maybe she’s visiting her mother.”

“Her mother is alive.”

“Good for her. But what’s your wife’s maiden name? Humor me.”

“Boyer,” he said after a second or two.

“What can you tell me about her?”

“Well, her hair is dyed blond and she has green eyes—”

The laughter just burst out of me and Cutler was looking very annoyed by the time I forced it back down. His hands were pressed down on the arms of his chair. He was clearly about to walk out.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Cutler,” I managed before he could stand, “but have you seen yourself in a mirror lately? You wife doesn’t look any different, you know.”

Cutler flashed anger, then looked a little sheepish. “You’re right, of course. I wasn’t thinking. This is all still new to me.”

I nodded. “I’m sorry I laughed,” I said, “but it’s all old stuff to me.”

“I suppose I can see the funny side,” Cutler allowed. “Could you ask a more specific question?”

“Well, like what was her take on life after death? Was she sure of meeting any friends or relatives who died before her, sure enough to want to go looking for them right away?”

“My wife is as practical woman,” Cutler answered severely, “just as I am a practical man.”

“Of course,” I said. “Would you call her emotional or impulsive?”

“Absolutely not.”

“’K.” I shifted position in my chair. “How did you two get along? Any fights?”

This time Cutler did stand. “Where do you get off asking questions like that?” he snapped.

“You want me to find your wife, don’t you?” I asked with equal force. Cutler sank back into his chair. “Now, we’ve got two basic possibilities here: either something happened to your wife, and you can’t help me there, or she went off on her own. If she did that, she must have had a reason. I could ask her, but then if I could you wouldn’t be here. So I’ve got to ask you, particularly since you’re not volunteering anything useful.”

“You’re getting above yourself,” Cutler said in a low tone.

“Bull****,” I bit off. “There isn’t a dick anywhere that can get a job done without knowing everything he can, and no one who’s on the ball is going to leave off pumping the client. Anyone who’d let you sit there tight as a clam is only taking your money. So if you’re serious about wanting to find your wife, you’ll have to answer my questions and to hell with whether or not you like them.”

Cutler was quiet a moment or two and then said, “I bet you have a bottle of whiskey in a desk drawer, too.”

I just sent him a tight leer.

“All right,” he said after another pause. “I suppose you know your business.” He didn’t sound happy about it. “Since you’ve asked, my wife and I had a good relationship. We’ve never had any real problems or fights. Is that satisfactory?”

I bit down on my pipe stem and puffed. “Sure. That tells me a lot.” He broadcast a frown which cleared up when I started speaking again. “So I’m guessing you don’t think your wife took off somewhere. You think something happened to her, right?”

“I realize our vows were ‘’till death do us part’ but I can’t believe Sharon would simply disappear for no reason.”

“Sure,” I said. “Lots of couples stick together. Or want to. I wouldn’t have much of a business otherwise.”

Cutler nodded. “Speaking of which,” he reached into his vest pocket and pulled out his poke, taking from it a few crisp bills, “will this do for a start?”

I took the bills and spread them out. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll let you know what more I’ll need once I get a better idea of what I’m up against.”

“I’m not a stingy man,” Cutler said. “Nothing is more important than my wife.”

“I understand completely.” I put the bills in my own wallet. “Where are you stopping?”

“Excuse me?”

“So I can get in touch with you later.”

“Oh,” he said. “I’m at the Mayfair.”

“Nice place,” I said as I made a note of it. “By the way, did you say you’ve checked back with Records since that first time?”

“Yes,” Cutler said. “Today, in fact. They still refuse to tell me anything other than the case is still open.”

“And the exact date of you and your wife’s death?”

“The fifteenth.”

I scratched that down and said, “Well, that’s about it. I’ll let you know as soon as I have anything.”

“I expect swift action, Mr. Wells,” Cutler said as he stood.

“I’ll do my best,” I said as I offered him my hand. This time he just shook it and went. I waited a couple of moments then stepped out into the front office. “You get all that?” I asked Jen.

“Sure, Frankie,” she said. She handed me the pad onto which she’d put down the conversation as it came over the intercom. I looked over her shorthand and then handed back the pad. “Type that up sometime,” I said and got out my poke. I opened it for her and said, “Cast your sockets on that.”

“Well!” she said.

“A thousand smacks!” I shook my head and pocketed the money again. “Where was this guy in 1931?”

“Probably just a gleam in his daddy’s eye.”

“Of course,” I said, “this is just to keep me from getting too curious. What do you make of him, angel?”

Jen leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs, pulling the edge of her skirt down over her knees again. “Married who knows how long and never a raised voice?” she asked sarcastically. “Where do I get mine?”

“Yeah, he’s quite a pill. And he expects me to find his wife without knowing anything.”

“So why didn’t you work him harder?” Jen asked.

“When I’ve got a lever,” I said.

“Do you think she skipped?”

“I don’t know.” I sat down on the edge of Jen’s desk and knocked my pipe out into the wastebasket. I refilled it as I said, “I think Mister Helpful is covering up a marriage that died long before he did, but that business about the case still being open bothers me.”

“Yeah,” Jen said, sounding thoughtful. “Like I know how reapers work, but it doesn’t seem possible they’d leave a soul for days and days.”

“I don’t think it’s possible, either.” I shrugged and lit my pipe. “Still...” I dropped the match into the ashtray on Jen’s desk. “I suppose I’d better get busy.” I stood up and ducked into my office for my hat. When I came out again I said, “I’m going to Records and see about the wife’s case. Whatever I learn or don’t learn I’ll follow up at Acquisitions.”

“You gonna talk to Shippey?” Jen asked.

“Probably. If he’s in. I want you to get all the dope on Roger Cutler, the whole works if you can. We’ll get together later.”

“Right,” she said, reaching for the phone.

I put my hat on and tugged down the brim. “Blond hair and green eyes,” I said as I went out. “Judas!”



Down on the street I flagged a cab and told the driver to take me to Records. Unlike the Bureau of Acquistions, Records occupied several buildings on the DOD Plaza. The Bureau of Records was probably the single largest bureau in the Department of Death. All the other bureaus dealt with current affairs, so to speak. The Bureau of Acquisitions, of course, brought the newly dead to the Land of the Dead. The Bureau of Administration (which occupied one of the non-Records buildings on the Plaza) oversaw the operations of all other bureaus. And so on. It was the business of Records to store the documents generated by the DOD. That’s so big a task that the big Records setup on the Plaza only deals with the last 500 years. Everything else is stored in a massive labyrinth in a place outside of El Marrow most people call the Pit (although I think it’s real name is Sheol). The Plaza, since it’s both the center of DOD operations and the heart of downtown El Marrow, is a very busy place. I suppose that’s why the Bureau of Acquisitions was moved off the Plaza a while back, because the Plaza is too much to throw the newly dead into.

When I got out at the Plaza I headed for the most unimportant-looking building, bypassed the front desk and went straight for Retrieval. I went through the pair of glass and chromium doors to the office and walked up to the counter that bisected the room. I exchanged ‘smiles’ with the little girl at the PBX and said to the clerk, “Hazel in today?”

“Yes,” the clerk said. “Shall I get her for you?”

“If you’d be so kind,” I answered and the girl put on a poker face.

“One moment,” the clerk said and put starch on it.

Hazel Cheever, the woman who ruled Retrieval despite the delusions of certain other parties to the contrary, came up front a moment later. She’d been there for as long as I’d had reasons for coming in and she always affected a kind of middle-aged, gentle carelessness. If you took it seriously you could get badly bitten. “Morning, Frankie,” she said brightly. “Business?”

“Yeah,” I answered, taking my hat off, “and it could be something of a challenge for you. I’ve got a client who died with his wife in an accident and the wife hasn’t turned up yet, and there’s maybe something funny about it. The wife’s name is Sharon Cutler, née Boyer. Died the fifteenth of this month.”

“Just a second, Frankie,” Hazel said, turning to a computer terminal. “Funny,” she said after tapping at the keys for a while. “Her case is still open.”

“Yeah, even my client was smart enough to find that out,” I said. “How do you figure that? Shouldn’t there have been some action on it by now?”

“Should there have been?” Hazel said. “The client should have been picked up and the case processed within 24 hours of death. That’s regulations.”

“My client isn’t being very informative. I think his marriage went sour long ago and he doesn’t want to admit it. Can you get me any information about the wife’s friends and relatives? The ones that are dead, of course. If any.”

Hazel shook her head. “I’m sorry, Frankie. I would if I could, but the case is still open. Until it’s closed I only have access to the biographical summary. That’s the information used to generate the work order for Acquisitions.”

“Can’t you get around that?”

“’Fraid not,” said sincerely. “The full file is ‘locked’ until the reaper assigned to the case closes it. Once that action comes back the file gets opened up...but until the reaper does his part I can’t do a thing.”

“Is that regulations,” I began, “or...?”

“It’s a fact,” Hazel answered. She tapped the counter for emphasis. “You see, the full file is encrypted. It’s the closing of the case that decrypts it.”

“I was afraid of something like that.” I spun my hat in my hands. “So, can you tell me who the reaper is?”

“Assignments are made by officer managers. I can only tell you which manager received the work order.”

“Well, that’s something. Is that in the info you can call up?” Hazel nodded. “Can you print me off a copy?”

“Well,” Hazel hedged, “yes, I suppose I can trust you, Frankie.”

“You’re a doll, baby,” I said and Hazel ran off a copy of the summary of Sharon Cutler’s file. I took the page, took a look at it, then folded it and put it away. “Thanks, Hazel,” I said, putting my hat on. “I’ll be back if I can get any action on this.”

“I’ll be here, Frankie,” Hazel said.

I nodded to the girl and left Records.



I got another cab and went out to Acquisitions, a big building sitting out of place in the semi-urban zone sitting between downtown and the residential part of El Marrow. I went in and rode the elevator up to Dan Shippey’s floor. Shippey was a reaper I’d known for years who even after all that still could stand the sight of me. The secretary in his division was an old timer and knew me by sight. She just nodded as I went by her desk toward the door with ‘D.H. Shippey’ painted neatly on the glass. The door was open so I just rapped on the frame and walked into the office.

Shippey looked up from his paperwork and said, “Oh, morning Frankie. How are you?”

“Just swell,” I said, putting myself in the chair beside his desk and taking off my hat, setting it on the desk beside me. “Half an hour ago I was bored out of my head and now I’ve got a nutcase for a client, the kind who thinks the best way to solve a problem is to throw money at it.”

Shippey had a wry look about him. “A lot of money?”

“I’ve only got a taste so far, but maybe if I come through.” I shrugged.

“I don’t suppose this is a social call?”

“Don’t be silly,” I said. “This is a strange one and I think I could use some help.”

“If I can,” he said. “Drink?”

“Sure,” I said and he got up to go over to his tiny bar. Shippey wasn’t a big drinker but, since his office came with the thing, he didn’t see any reason not to use it. He didn’t have to ask what I wanted. Just poured me a shot, handed me the glass and sat down. “What’s the problem?”
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Old 05-06-2002, 07:24 PM   #2
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well, when u do fool with something....u make it long. nice work

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Old 05-07-2002, 01:09 AM   #3
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Long? You have no idea. I have a entire hard-boiled detective novel here. Well, in my head mostly. I've resisted actually writing it because I want to work on publishable stuff but the damn thing won't go away. So I've given in. Hopefully it won't take over completely.
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Old 05-07-2002, 01:15 AM   #4
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Grrr. Might as well spit out today's scribbling.

---

I got another cab and went out to Acquisitions, a big building sitting out of place in the semi-urban zone sitting between downtown and the residential part of El Marrow. I went in and rode the elevator up to Dan Shippey’s floor. Shippey was a reaper I’d known for years who even after all that still could stand the sight of me. The secretary in his division was an old timer and knew me by sight. She just nodded as I went by her desk toward the door with ‘D.H. Shippey’ painted neatly on the glass. The door was open so I just rapped on the frame and walked into the office.

Shippey looked up from his paperwork and said, “Oh, morning Frankie. How are you?”

“Just swell,” I said, putting myself in the chair beside his desk and taking off my hat, setting it on the desk beside me. “Half an hour ago I was bored out of my head and now I’ve got a nutcase for a client, the kind who thinks the best way to solve a problem is to throw money at it.”

Shippey had a wry look about him. “A lot of money?”

“I’ve only got a taste so far, but maybe...if I come through.” I shrugged.

“I don’t suppose this is a social call?”

“Don’t be silly,” I said. “This is a strange one and I think I could use some help.”

“If I can,” he said. “Drink?”

“Sure,” I said and he got up to go over to his tiny bar. Shippey wasn’t a big drinker but, since his office came with the thing, he didn’t see any reason not to use it. He didn’t have to ask what I wanted. Just poured me a shot, handed me the glass and sat down. “What’s the problem?”

I gave Shippey a sketch of the situation and when I’d finished he said, “I think you’re right to worry about the case being open for so long. There’s something wrong somewhere.”

“That’s how I figure it,” I said. “I can understand a wife bolting the first chance she gets. Happens all the time. But this looks like...well, I don’t know. Whatever it is, maybe the wife isn’t out of the way by her choice. And if that’s so, that’s a problem for—maybe with—your organization.”

“I like the way you drive your point home, Frankie,” Shippey said a little petulantly.

“Anyway,” I went on as if I hadn’t heard, “I figure I’m gonna need a little inside drag if I’m going to get anywhere. You remember that hassle I had a while back with that manager, what was her name? Agnes Little.” I took the paper I got from Hazel out of my pocket. I unfolded it on the desk and pointed out the name of the office manager the work order was routed to. “You know this gee?” I asked.

“Not to speak to,” Shippey said. “I know one or two of the agents in that office, though. It’s just a couple of floors down.”

“Care to go down with me? That might be all it takes to make me regular.”

“Sure, Frankie,” he said. “No problem.”

I pocketed my paper and picked up my hat and went down to the division managed by Joseph Matuska. We stopped at the secretary’s desk and Shippey said, “Is Mr. Matuska in, Dot? You remember me: Agent Shippey, from upstairs? This is Frank Wells. We have some important business to discuss with him.”

“Is Mr. Matuska expected you?” the secretary asked.

“No,” Shippey answered. “This just came up.”

“One moment,” the secretary said and turned to the intercom. “Mr Matuska? Agents Shippey and Wells are here to see you. They say it’s very important.”

There was a short pause before the voice came back, “Send them in.”

The secretary nodded to us and I followed Shippey into the manager’s office. Matuska was a little man, looking somewhat rumpled in shirt sleeves and no tie. He got up and came around his desk to shake our hands. “Good morning, gentlemen,” he said. “I know I’ve seen you around, Mr. Shippey, but I’m afraid I don’t recognize you, Mr. Wells.” He looked a little nervous. Maybe he always did.

I let Shippey speak first. “Mr. Wells isn’t an agent,” he explained, “he’s a private detective, and an old friend of mine, specializing in locating missing persons. He’s got a bit of a problem and it seems to be connected to your division.”

Matuska looked me up and down, seeming a cross between amused and annoyed. “What sort of problem, Mr. Wells?”

“My client is looking for his wife,” I said. “They both died on the fifteenth but, as far as we know at this point, no one has seen her since. Now, I know that’s neither here nor there as far as you’re concerned, but they tell me down at Records that her case is still open. That shouldn’t be, Mr. Matuska, and I’d appreciate it if you could tell me which of your agents you assigned to this case.” I handed the paper to the small man. He took it and walked back to his desk and sat down. He smoothed the paper out on the surface and stared at it intently. “This all happened only last week,” I prodded. “It can’t be that tough to remember.”

“Easy, Frankie,” Shippey hissed quietly.

“Mr. Wells,” Matuska said slowly, “you’ve placed me in a very difficult position.”

“If it sets your mind at rest any,” I said, “I don’t particularly care about what goes on in your office. All I want is to find who I’ve been engaged to find. If one of your boys made a slip and you want to cover it up, it’s jake with me. I’ll play ball as long as it doesn’t get in the way of my job.” There was more silence from Matuska and I said, “Well?”

When Matuska still didn’t speak up, Shippey prompted, “Was it Greg Harris?”

The little guy started and I said to Shippey, “Who’s this Greg Harris?”

“He was an agent in my office,” Matuska answered, sounding defeated. “We haven’t seen him since last week.”

“Do you think maybe he has something to do with the disappearance of Mrs. Cutler?” I asked.

“Until you came in here I didn’t know there was anything amiss with her case,” Matuska said. He passed one hand tiredly over his eye sockets.

“So why the stall?” I pushed.

“Agents are supposed to remain in the city and check in if they intend to skip scheduled time,” Matuska answered. “If I even suspect that an agent is trying to leave town, I’m required to report it immediately.”

“You see, Frankie,” Shippey chipped in, “it’s a big deal if an agent makes a start for the Ninth Underworld before they’re officially released. But plenty of agents and some office managers look the other way, at least for a while, when someone makes a break. Just to give them a chance.”

“I get it,” I said. “Well, that’s your affair,” I told Matuska. “But just so everything is clear I want you to tell me, yes or no, if this Harris gee is Mrs. Cutler’s agent.”

“Yes,” Matuska said. “I assigned him to the case.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Can you tell me when you last saw him?”

Matuska thought a little and said, “I suppose it was the fifteenth, but you’d better ask my secretary. She has a memory for details like that.”

“I’ll do that. I’d also like to examine Harris’ office.”

“I suppose I ought to let you,” Matuska said resignedly. “Is there anything else?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Records needs to get into Mrs. Cutler’s file before they can help me any. Since the agent of record is missing, do you have the authority to close the case for him?”

“Y-yes,” Matuska said after considering. “Technically I’d have to take care of the travel package details with the client myself, but under the circumstances...I suppose I could just put down ‘walking’.”

“Fine,” I said. “Whatever it takes. I’ll let you know if there’s anything else.”

Matuska nodded tiredly and turned toward his computer as we let ourselves out.

“Are you going to need me for anything else, Frankie?” Shippey asked.

“Could be,” I answered. “Got the time?”

He shrugged agreeably and I turned to the secretary. “You should know I’m not with the DOD. I’m private detective and I’m looking for a missing woman. Your boss tells me her agent is missing, too. The name’s Greg Harris. When did you last see him?”

The secretary got a look like she was biting a nonexistent lip. “Greg hasn’t been in since last week.”

“What was the exact date?”

“The fifteenth,” was the answer. “He left a little before 2 PM.”

“Did he happen to say why he was going?” I pressed.

“He was in his robes, going out to collect a case.”

“Did he make any remark about the case that you can remember?”

“Yes,” she said. “He mentioned something about a horrible accident.”

“Anything about the client?”

The secretary thought and shook her head. “No, nothing. But I remember that he didn’t return with the client. He didn’t return at all.”

“No client, huh?” I said.

“No,” she said. “And there’s something else,” she said in a quieter voice. I moved a little closer. “I did some checking the next morning and his car isn’t in the garage. His driver can’t be found, either.”

“What’s the driver’s name?”

“Ettis.”

“What can you tell me about Harris?” I asked. “Did he ever say anything about wanting to skip out?”

“Not to me,” she answered. “When we talked it was always about work and he always seemed resigned to sticking things out.”

“Know who his close friends were?”

“No...but Mr. Anderson was in to see him that day. He left with Greg as a matter of fact.”

“And who is Mr. Anderson?”

“I’m not really sure,” the secretary answered in a bemused tone.

“I’ve heard of him,” Shippey said. “He’s supposed to be a little strange and likes to hang around reapers.”

“A little strange?” I needled Shippey. “He sounds sick.”

“Well, you ought to know,” he shot back.

“OK, I set myself up for that one,” I grumbled. I turned back toward the secretary. “I’ve got your boss’ permission to look at Harris’ office. Is it unlocked?”

“No,” she answered. “I locked it when he didn’t come back.” She opened her middle desk drawer and pulled out some keys. “Follow me,” she said as she got up and led us to Harris’ door. She unlocked it and pushed it open. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t try to remove anything.”

“Don’t worry, Dot,” Shippey said. “I’ll keep him honest.” The secretary nodded and went back to her desk. “If I can,” he said when we were alone.

“Smart guy,” I said and went in. Shippey followed.

I went to the desk, sat down, and started flipping through Harris’ Rolodex. Shippey shuffled the papers on the desk around.

“Do you suppose Harris ran off with Mrs. Cutler?” he asked.

“Why should he?” I asked back. “What are the odds that they knew each other? And even if they did, it still wouldn’t mean anything.”

“Still,” Shippey persisted, “Harris could have taken off with her.”

“And what are you using for evidence?” I asked pointedly. Shippey subsided visibly. “You don’t get anywhere in this business by guessing. Goddammit!” I exclaimed. “No Anderson.” I gave the Rolodex an angry spin.

“Anderson?” Shippey asked, getting a little excited again. “You don’t think—”

“I don’t think anything,” I growled, “but he was the last one to see Harris. That makes him important.”

“At the risk at getting my head bit off again,” Shippey ventured, “do you think it might be suspicious that Anderson left with Harris?”

I gave that a second or two of serious thought, just to be polite. “No,” I finally said, “not even if they left together. Supposing Anderson was only here to see Harris, he probably just decided to scram when Harris got Mrs. Cutler’s work order. If you went off on a case I sure as hell wouldn’t be waiting in your office when you got back.”

“Probably not,” Shippey conceded. “Oh, here’s the work order.”

“Yeah,” I said, taking it and pocketing it. “Great.” I turned my attention to the desk drawers.

“You know, Frankie,” Shippey said, “I think you’re wrong to say Anderson is the last one to see Harris. What about whoever might have been in the garage?”

“Hey, that’s a thought,” I said. Then, “Naw. They’d only say Harris left and hasn’t come back. I know that already.”

“The garage has two exits,” Shippey pointed out. “One to the Limbo Highway and the second to the street outside. You don’t know which exit Harris took.”

“I guess I should check into that,” I said. “Thanks.” I slammed the last drawer shut and turned to the computer. “Judas!” I exclaimed when I saw what had been in plain view all the time. “Am I dumb or what?” I grabbed the little sticky note stuck on the side of the monitor. “Anderson,” I read off, “PLaza 4-1112.” I took the work order out of my pocket, stuck the note to it, and put it back. “D’ya suppose the secretary will miss this?” I asked.

“Miss what?” Shippey asked innocently.

I stood. “Well, I got what I came for. Can you think of anything to keep me here?” Shippey shook his head. “All right,” I said and jammed my hat on my head. I closed Harris’ door behind me and said, “Thanks, sister,” as I passed the secretary.

When Shippey and I got to the elevators I pointed to the smaller one and asked, “Does that go down to the garage?”

“Yeah,” Shippey answered. “Want me to go down with you?”

“No, I’ve dragged you around enough,” I said and shook the hand that was offered me. “Thanks,” I said, “you’ve been a gent. I’ll buy you a lollipop some time.”

“So long, Frankie,” Shippey said as he got into the main elevator. “I hope you learn to speak English before I see you again.”

“Same to you,” I said as the doors closed. I pushed the button for the other elevator and then clicked my fingers. I went back to the secretary’s desk and said, “Can I use your phone? Thanks.” I dialed and said, “Hazel? Oh. Put her on then,” when I got an answer. “Hello, sweetheart,” I said when Hazel got on the wire. “This is Frankie....Say, listen, Mrs. Cutler’s file is probably open now or it soon will be. When you get in, send everything you can over to my secretary. And give her all you have on a reaper named Greg Harris, works under a Joseph Matuska....Yeah, I know, but I think he’s tangled up in it, too....He left the office on the fifteenth and hasn’t been back....Well, you may have a point there....If you can get all that stuff sent over I’ll take care of the rest....OK, bye.” I hung up and went back over to the garage elevator which still hadn’t arrived.
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Old 05-09-2002, 12:55 AM   #5
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Oops! I seem to have killed the topic. Naturally no one may be the least bit interested. and I certainly have no intention of post an entire novel while I'm writing it. But...I'm just going to slap up one more piece. I've completed the setup--the nature of the problem is completely defined. Seems to be a good place to quit posting the damn thing. Of course I know how it all will end but it might be interesting to see some guesses.

---

“Same to you,” I said as the doors closed. I pushed the button for the other elevator and then clicked my fingers. I went back to the secretary’s desk and said, “Can I use your phone? Thanks.” I dialed and said, “Hazel? Oh. Put her on then,” when I got an answer. “Hello, sweetheart,” I said when Hazel got on the wire. “This is Frankie....Say, listen, Mrs. Cutler’s file is probably open now or it soon will be. When you get in, send everything you can over to my secretary. And give her all you have on a reaper named Greg Harris, works under a Joseph Matuska....Yeah, I know, but I think he’s tangled up in it, too....He left the office on the fifteenth and hasn’t been back....Well, you may have a point there....If you can get all that stuff sent over I’ll take care of the rest....OK, bye.” I hung up and went back over to the garage elevator which still hadn’t arrived. I turned back to the secretary and asked, “Did you happen to notice which elevator Anderson got into?”

She shook her head and said, “No, I had to take a call while Greg was still telling me about the accident and didn’t see either he or Mr. Anderson leave.”

“Well, thanks,” I said as the elevator door opened.




Down in the garage I found a demon mechanic who said he was around when Harris left the building. He claimed to have gotten the car out of dock for Ettis. The mechanic didn’t actually see the car go out the Limbo Highway exit but he said that the street exit was normally kept shut, and claimed that if anyone had raised the huge door he would have heard the noise or at least have noticed the daylight steaming in. What he couldn’t tell me at all was whether Harris got in the car alone or with Anderson, although he did see another soul with Harris when he brought out the car. Wanting to make my visit worth something, I asked the mechanic to open the street door while I stood where he claimed to have been after getting the car for Ettis. I don’t know about demon ears but I could just hear the door going up, while the daylight coming through the opening was very noticeable. So assuming the mechanic wasn’t lying about not seeing or hearing that door being opened, Harris must have taken the highway exit. The mechanic said he never saw the car return, but admitted that he doesn’t always see or hear when a car comes in. All he could say was that the car wasn’t in the garage now. When I asked if the car could have returned and then left through the street exit he said it was possible but hadn’t seen Harris’ car do that, and admitted when pressed that he isn’t in the garage 24 hours a day and that there are plenty of spots where the exits can’t been seen. He promised to ask around in case some other demon saw something but I didn’t pin any hopes on that. Apart from getting a guess that Harris really had left for the accident scene, the visit was a bust.

It was past lunchtime when I got finished with the demon so I took a cab to ‘Peeps’ Kelly’s speakeasy. There isn’t and there never has been prohibition in the Land of the Dead, but ‘Peeps’ didn’t know that when he’d arrived. He got caught between two rival beer barons in 1926 and decided to just carry on with what had he had been doing after the reaper got through with him. The fact that he wasn’t in the States anymore didn’t sink in properly until he was setting up and discovered he could buy liquor legally. By then the joint already looked like a typical speak and ‘Peeps’ decided to stay with the setup as a kind of theme. It sounds like a stupid idea, but I found I liked it better than any of the cocktail lounges or wine bars I’ve tried.

I’ve heard that out beyond Rubacava there’s a tavern off the main highway that serves mead and has rank straw on the floor but I’m not sure I believe that.

Anyway it was past time for a bite to eat so I went down to Kelly’s joint. I put myself down at the bar and got a corned-beef sandwich and a beer from ‘Peeps’.

“Your Jenny was here a while ago,” he said. “Wanted to know if I’d seen you today.”

“I’ve been getting started on a case,” I said, starting to work on the beer. “She knows that.”

‘Peeps’ gave me the trademarked stare.

“I need to use your phone,” I told him. He reached under the bar and put the phone down in front of me, and old two-handed model but with a rotary dial. After giving me the phone ‘Peeps’ ambled off to flick a rag over his tables.

I dug out Anderson’s number and dialed it. I got the front desk of the Empire Apartments. The phone was answered by a distant, disinterested man who said that Anderson wasn’t in. After disconnecting I dialed information and asked the woman on the other end, “Can you tell me the address of the Empire Apartments?” With the earpiece wedged between skull and shoulder joint, I wrote down the address on the back of the work order and read it back to make sure I had gotten it right.

I hung up, pushed the phone away and put the work order back in my pocket. I made quick work of my lunch and then climbed back up to the street to flag down a cab, telling the driver to take me to the Empire Apartments.




The Empire appeared less impressive than it’s name suggested. It was pretty much a large cube with windows in a part of town full of similar cubes; a lower-middle class area on which the architects must have given up. The place hadn’t yet gone completely to seed but it was definitely past it’s prime. I told the cabbie to wait and I trotted up the six steps to the front doors of the Empire. Through the doors was a small lobby. Covering the floor was a thin, gray carpet. I couldn’t tell whether it had started life that color. To the left of the door under the lobby’s one window was a threadbare couch that faced toward a dark hallway running toward the rear of the building. Just inside the hallway could be seen the stairs leading to the upper floors. Next to the hallway and straight in front of the entrance was the clerk’s desk. On the wall behind were a couple dozen mail slots, and seated on a stool behind the desk was a bored-looking man reading a newspaper.

The man didn’t look up when I approached the desk. I scanned the mail slots behind him. They were labeled by apartment numbers.

I rapped the desk. The man didn’t move but I sensed I had his attention. “Anderson back yet?” I asked.

“Haven’t seen him today,” the man mumbled disinterestedly.

“When have you seen him?”

“It’s no business of mine,” he drawled.

“Look, buddy,” I said, leaning close to the man, “I’m just trying to find Anderson. I heard he was staying here. Is that true or not?”

The man slowly folded over his paper to a new page. “We’ve got an Anderson,” he finally said. “Don’t know if he’s the one you’re after. Go up and look if you want. 12C.”

I looked at the mail slots again. “If he’s in 12C he hasn’t picked up his mail lately.” The man looked directly at me for the first time. “When did you see him last?”

“I told you, it’s not my business.” He sounded less bored and more like angry. “What makes it yours and why should I care?”

I held myself back from growling in annoyance and said, “I’m a detective. Anderson may know something about a matter I’m investigating. I just want to ask him a few simple questions, that’s all.”

The man put down his paper on the desk. “You say you’re a detective. How do I know that?”

I got out my wallet and showed him my honorary deputy’s badge.

“Jesus!” he exploded, sounding like he’d spit if he could. “A lousy shamus!” He gestured at the badge. “That doesn’t carry any weight and you know it.”

I knew it and put my wallet back. “Well, if you won’t talk about Anderson, mind if I take a look at his room?”

“****, no!” the man snapped. “You’re no cop and you don’t have no warrant, so hoist anchor and shove off!”

I shrugged and said, “I can take a hint.” I turned and walked to the front doors and pulled one open. I turned back to the man, said, “But don’t be surprised if I come back with police permission to turn this dump upside down.” I flicked my hat brim with one finger in salute and left.

I stopped a moment on the sidewalk and glanced back at the building. I shook my head, got into the cab and went back to the office.




After paying the cabbie I stomped into my office building and took the elevator up to my floor. My hands were jammed deep into my pants pockets, jangling keys and loose change. I jerked open my door and tossed my behind into one of the two padded chairs in the outer office, flinging my hat into the other one.

“Judas!” I spat at no one in particular. “What a screwy case!”

Jen sat behind her desk, giving off an arched-eyebrow look. “Oh, there you are,” she commented dryly. “Not that I really care, but what is it with all this?” She gestured at her desk in front of her. She had three big file folders sitting on it, two still with the elastic band around them and the contents of the third spread out in front of her.

I rubbed my face and said, not answering her, “Oh, good. Hazel came through already.”

“I’m glad you’re happy,” Jen said. “The files on the Cutler’s I expected, but who the hell is Gregory Harris?”

I fished the work order out of my pockets and tossed it over to Jen. “He’s the reaper who was assigned to Mrs. Cutler’s case. Get out your notepad, angel. I’ve got a lot to tell you.”

“Yeah, OK,” she said and took a pad and pencil from a desk drawer. She pointed a finger at the work order. “What’s this phone number and address written on the back?”

“That’s the wildcard,” I said, “but everything in it’s turn.”

She nodded but asked another question. “Why’d you underline Sharon Cutler’s name?”

“What?” I looked at the work order and shook my head. “I didn’t. Harris must’ve.”

“I wonder why,” Jen asked, sounding like she was talking to herself.

I answered anyway. “Maybe he was bad with names. Let’s get on with it.”

“Sorry, Frankie,” she said and poised the pencil over the paper.

I rubbed my face again. “OK, first off, Records couldn’t get at Sharon Cutler’s file until the case was closed. I got Harris’ boss, one Joseph Matuska,” I stopped to spell the second name, “to do it. The reason Harris didn’t do it himself is because he’s not around anymore.” Jen looked up from her shorthand in surprise but kept quiet. “I’ve established that Harris was last seen leaving his office about 2 PM on the fifteenth. He mentioned an accident to the office secretary on his way out and he was wearing his robes. Harris’ driver, Ettis, had a mechanic in the Acquisition’s garage get out his boss’ car for him. That same mechanic believes that Ettis drove the car onto the Limbo Highway.”

“He isn’t sure?” Jen asked.

“Oh, he’s sure,” I said, “and he can make a plausible case for it but I’m not sure how far that can be trusted.”

“OK.”

“OK,” I echoed. “So Harris hasn’t been seen since the fifteenth, neither has Ettis, and the car is not back in the garage.”

“Teriffic,” Jen remarked.

“Yeah, and it gets daffier. When Harris got the work order he had a visitor, some bird named Anderson. Male. First name no one seems to know. He left with Harris and the mechanic saw two people waiting for the car in the garage but wasn’t looking when either or both got in.”

“Or even whether anyone other than the driver got in, right?” Jen asked.

“Right,” I said. “Good point. So I try to check up on this Anderson. I find where he’s supposed to be staying all right—I got the phone number from Harris’ office—but he doesn’t seem to be in. There’s at least three days’ worth of mail in his slot and I get nothing but grief from the apartment building’s superintendant.”

“What do you mean by ‘grief’?” Jen wanted to know.

“He won’t say when Anderson was last in or where he’s gone but volunteered that he doesn’t like private dicks snooping around the place.”

“Where is this apartment building and what’s Anderson’s number?” Jen asked and I told her. “So,” Jen said as she jotted the last of it down, “all we have to cope with is one missing woman, one reaper who seems to have vanished along with his driver...and the one potential witness to whatever might have occurred is nowhere to be found, either.”

“What you forgot to mention is that I still don’t know whether Mrs. Cutler made it here, or if she’s still in the Land of the Living, or maybe wandering lost on the Limbo Highway. Now you know why I brought my own pet storm cloud in with me.”

Jen put down her pad and set the pencil on top of it. “And no wonder.” She drummed her fingers on the desk. “What’s your next move?”

I sighed and scratched my jaw. “I need to get a look at Anderson’s apartment,” I said. “Harris’, too, but maybe his super isn’t as hostile as Anderson’s. I’m worried about Matuska, though.”

“Why Matuska?” Jen asked.

“He didn’t want to discuss the Cutler case at first. Wouldn’t even tell me who her reaper was. It was Shippey that made the connection with Harris. Matuska was covering up for Harris, thinking he’d made a break for the Ninth Underworld. He only talked after I said I’d keep quiet if I could, but you know how people are. He probably thinks we’ve got a binding contract. But I’ve gotta spill the whole story if I’m gonna get permission to search that apartment. So I can either dismiss Anderson to be sure of staying on Matuska’s good side—and I can’t afford to do that—or I can rat out Matuska and get him in dutch with the big boys downtown and hope to high heaven I won’t ever need his help again.”

“What does this have to do with searching apartments?”

“Suppose I find I need to get into Harris’ office again? If Matuska thinks I’ve crossed him, he could set fire to Harris’ files and smash his computer and I’d only be able to stand by and watch.” I shook my head and stood up and went into the inner office.

“Not that he’d go that far,” Jen called after me, “but maybe, when you tell the police what you know, they’d agree to seal Harris’ office for you.”

“That’s a thought,” I said as I came back with a bottle of Scotch and two glasses. “It’d probably be in their interest to do that, too. Thirsty?” I asked.

“No, thanks,” she said so I poured just myself a drink and sat back down. “You ready to hear what I’ve got so far on Mr. Cutler?”

“Go ahead,” I said and leaned back in my chair.

“OK.” Jen picked up another pad and glanced at it. “Cutler was 53 at the time of his death. Did the basic liberal arts thing at Urbana/Champaign with a C-minus average.”

“Brain trust,” I said with a bark of laughter.

“Remind me,” Jen began acidly. “Which of us skipped the last year of high school to crawl through blood and mud in France?”

That was embarassing the way she said it, but I growled, “And which of us came back with a citation?”

Jen didn’t answer but filled the room with smugness. She scored bigger and she knew it. She went on with her recital. “He went to work for, well, one company after another, moving up to middle management. He took night classes for several years and eventually got an MBA. Rose to upper management and ultimately served on the boards of two different companies. Not at the same time, of course.”

“Of course,” I said. “So he’s just a corporate desk jockey.”

“More or less,” Jen agreed. “According to the value-of-life summary, he had no skills to speak of and made no real contribution to the world. Just moved from one position to another, pulling down a bigger salary each time.”

“No wonder he oozes self-importance,” I said. “The worthless always do.” I drained my glass and refilled it. “What about his married life?” I asked.

“Oh, you’ll love it,” Jen said happily. “Sharon Boyer was his second wife. Before that she was his mistress. He divorced his first wife and married Sharon when his salary rose above 100 grand. She was 24 when they were married while the first Mrs. Cutler was four years older than the hero of our story. He’s been married twelve years to the current Mrs. Cutler. He’s had several affairs during that time, three of which Sharon found out about. They were separated for about 10 months when she discovered that the ‘business trip’ which sent him out of town on their fifth anniversary was really a trip to Saint Thomas with a 19-year-old Thai masseuse.”

“Oh, Judas!” I exclaimed, nearly spilling my drink. “That’s priceless! Was she really a masseuse?”

“Yes,” Jen said. “She worked at his country club.”

“So much for the idyllic marriage,” I said. “Anything else?”

Jen shrugged. “He slapped Sharon around a few times. Nothing too serious. Just light bruising. Several shouting matches and that’s all.”

I shook my head but radiated a big grin. “Sounds like Mrs. Cutler had plenty of reasons to bolt,” I said. Then I pounded my thigh with my free hand. “Too bad two, maybe three, others had to vanish at the same time or I could tell Cutler where to get off right now.”

“There’s more in Cutler’s file, of course,” Jen said, “but nothing that will change your opinion. I’ll type up my notes for you later. I haven’t had a chance to go through Mrs. Cutler’s file yet, and I still don’t know what to do with the reaper’s.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Just give Harris the same treatment as the Cutlers. Something might pop up. I wish I knew who Anderson was so you could get a look at his file, too.” I paused to listen to the buzz the Scotch was making in my skull. “Shippey had the bright idea that Harris and Mrs. Cutler were known to each other. Maybe he’s just a romantic but it’s worth looking into.”

“Could be,” Jen allowed, “but it’s a long shot. They won’t show up in each other’s files unless they had an affair or were involved together in anything else that affected both their destinies. Probably the most I can do is look for coincidences in dates and places, like maybe they went to the same high school.” She stopped with a shrug.

“And even if we get lucky with Harris, where does Anderson fit in if he fits in?” I asked. I didn’t expect an answer and didn’t get one. I stood up and carried the bottle and two glasses back into my office. I rinsed out the glass I’d used in the sink in my cramped toilet and put bottle and glasses back in the desk drawer I kept them in. I sat down behind my desk, put up my feet, filled my pipe, and tried to work out what my next step ought to be.

---

Where is Sharon Cutler? What happened to Greg Harris and his driver? What role (if any) does 'Anderson' play in all this?
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Old 06-06-2002, 04:38 PM   #6
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Hee, excellent work there. I didn't read it all but what I can see is very well written. So are you a writer or something, then?
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Old 06-08-2002, 12:16 AM   #7
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Not professionally. One does have ambitions, though. Or delusions. (They're really more or less the same thing.) I've also novelized the game (if for some unforgivable reason you didn't know).
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