My mind kept drifting to the mess of papers I’d had to stuff into the filing cabinet. Brace had called from the phone-box downstairs just moments before and wouldn’t be dissuaded from coming up. There was barely time for me to scrape together my clippings and notes, to get my less-than-sane looking research out of sight before he made it up the stairs. Things had recently come to light that meant I’d been pouring over past investigations into my, let’s say condition, when Brace and the telephone’s rattling dance had interrupted me. Now my notes and clippings sat in a crumpled wad in the dark at the bottom of the dull tower in the corner of the room. Years of asking and looking and digging and hunting, all screwed up in steel because of this impatient, entitled wanker.
Brace’s panicked footfalls barely slowed as he hit the door, flinging it into the bookcase behind. My bookcase wasn’t taking any of that though and gave Brace the door right back. He took a good hit to the leg, cursed under his breath, then closed the door with a hard smack. He brought in the smell of too many cigarettes, of too little soap. He had the beaten look of a washed out carpet salesman. The look of a man who told himself he was doing just fine while he remortgaged a rat-hole shop and worked seven-day weeks. A man under-slept and overweight. A man with haemorrhoids and a stomach ulcer and a gambling problem. His shoes were polished but the suit, tight around his paunch, fit badly. His hat, with its crumpled brim, looked as though it owed the wrong people money.
“Well?” His voice was panic stirred with blame.
“Well what, Mr Brace?”
“You said you’d found her!”
I took my feet off the corner of the desk and turned squarely to face him.
“I have completed my investigations and you will have a full report by Monday.” I rattled off the message I’d left him in a flat monotone. “Does that sound like demand to see me immediately and don’t take no for an answer to you, Mr Brace?”
“Less of the cheek, lady. You’ve done what you were hired for. Just tell me what you found.”
We stared at one another for a moment. Brace didn’t blink. I let out a grudging breath.
“I’m going to need my fee before that, Mr Brace.”
“You’ll get your money, woman! Just tell me!” His palm slapping the desk.
“Now, normally I wouldn’t demand payment like this” I continued, ignoring him, “but you strike me as a fairly hot headed individual and I have a concern that you won’t want to part with money in exchange for bad news.”
“It’s bad news?” He blurted, his hand still flayed on he desk.
“My fee, Mr Brace.” I said, fishing the invoice from my drawer.
He slid his hand over to take the slip of paper.
“£165, Mr Brace.”
His jaw tightened, eyes falling to the bottom line.
“You’ll see that’s including expenses.”
Brace grunted and shifted in the chair, his hand working it’s way between the seat-back and his arse. He extracted his wallet and started thumbing at the leather and the notes. Once he had selected an appropriate assortment, he pulled them out, folded them once and held the fold out over the desk. As I leaned forward, ready to reach out my own hand, Brace lifted his.
“Where is my wife?” Quieter now, calmer.
I stood, looking Brace in the eye, and took my money from between his fingers. My desk drawer squealed open and I swapped out the notes for a stack of photographs. I closed the drawer, a dull groan this time, and tossed the photos at him.
“I tracked her spiritual adviser to a farm in the dales.” I said, sitting back down as he reached for the photographs. “He’s some kind of priest now, charitable tax status and everything. Runs a commune with a bunch of strays. Some missing kids, that sort of thing, but your wife appears to be there of her own accord. No kidnapping.”
Brace had been looking through the photographs but he’d halted at a particular picture, and I knew just the one. Two bodies, sweaty and writhing. The kind of picture you don’t want to get caught looking at, let alone taking. People talk about free-love, but most still want it in the dark, behind a locked door. I do find parts of my job distasteful, the stacks of filth squirrelled away, the piles of fermenting transgression, but I’m afraid private lives are my bread and butter, and I can’t afford much by way of a conscience.
“She’s with that goddamned hippie?” He stammered. “But I loved her! I bought her everything she wanted. She wouldn’t have anything if it wasn’t for me!” Shouting again.
“As you say, Me Brace, she’s conducting an affair.” He didn’t look up. “That, along with your separation over the past few months, should see to a quick divorce. She’ll get a big heap of nothing.”
“Divorce?” He echoed, eyes still on the photograph.
“I did tell you to prepare yourself for this very eventuality, Mr Brace.” I tried to sound reassuring.
He finally looked up.
“Come on! That’s just something you say to everyone, surely?” His voice, equal parts desperation and defeat. It could still go either way.
“I do, Mr Brace, and do you know why?” He was still staring at me, over his wife. “I say it because, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that’s the way it is.”
I turned away absently, perhaps to see if the filing cabinet was still there. You never know with things like that. I remembered the bottle I’d put there. And then the stuff that made the bottle necessary. When I looked back, Brace’s was still staring at me.
“At least now, you know.” I added.
Brace’s eyes avoided his wife as his head fell, the photographs flapping their way to the floor with his gaze.
“I’ll have the completed file posted out to you.” I said, standing. “I suggest you pass it on to your solicitor.”
Brace was a heaped pile of defeat, bent over himself like a beaten question mark. It was far past time he should leave. I stomped around the desk, slamming my fist on the filing cabinet at I went. No reaction. I rattled the door knob pulling the door open and letting it bounce with a clatter off the bookcase. Still the sad heap in the chair. I kicked the chair back gently. Kicked it again, hard. Brace’s head jerked up with a start.
“Good evening, Mr Brace.”
He exit was slow but without fuss. And, with him gone, I could finally liberate my mess of papers from the filing cabinet, along with the bottle. And I set about, once more, tomaking sense of my crumpled life.