My mind was filled with the mess of papers stuffed inside the filing cabinet. Brace had called from the phone-box downstairs just moments ago 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. I’d been pouring over my investigations into, let’s call it my condition, when Brace had interrupted me with the telephone’s rattling dance. Now, that documented part of me sat in a crumpled wad at the bottom of that dull, steel tower in the corner. Years of asking and looking and digging and hunting, left cowering in the dark because of this impatient, entitled prick.
Brace’s panicked footfalls barely slowed as he hit the door, flinging it into the bookcase behind. My bookcase, though, does not take any guff, especially from the likes of Brace, and it gave him the door right back. He took a good hit to the leg, cursed under his breath, and closed the door with a hard smack. The door did not respond again.
Brace brought in the smell of too many cigarettes and too little soap. His had the beaten, washed-out look of a failing salesman. A man who sold carpets or vacuum-cleaners. A man who told himself he was doing just fine, that good days were just around the corner, 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, perhaps, a gambling problem. His shoes were polished but his suit, tight around the paunch, fit badly. His hat, with its water stains and crumpled brim, topped off an ensemble that looked as if it owed a little money to a lot of people.
“Well?” his voice, panic stirred with accusation.
“Well what, Mr Brace?”
“You said you’d found her!”
The poor bastard. I felt pity creeping up my chest before I remembered the time it would take to wade though the screwed-up mess in the filing cabinet. I took my feet off the corner of the desk and turned to squarely face him.
“I have completed my investigations and you will have a full report by Monday,” I rattled off the message I’d left 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 but Brace did not blink, nor did he look away.
“I’m going to need my fee before that, Mr Brace.”
“You’ll get your money, woman! Just tell me!”
His palm slapped down onto my 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 there’s 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 desk, sweaty condensation growing between his pale fingers.
“My fee, Mr Brace,” I said, while reaching over my shoulder and fishing an invoice from the tray on top of the filing cabinet.
I placed it on the desk and he slid his hand over to take the slip of paper.
“£165, Mr Brace.”
His jaw tightened as he looked the paper over, his eyes falling to the bottom line.
“You’ll see that’s including expenses.”
Brace grunted and shifted in the chair, working his hand between the seat-back and his arse. With his wallet successfully extracted, he began thumbing clumsily at the leather and notes. Once he had selected an appropriate assortment, he pulled out the currency, folded it once and held it out over the desk. As I leaned forward to take my money, Brace lifted it out of my reach, while our eyes paired off once again.
“Where is my wife?” his voice quieter now, calmer.
I stood up, Brace’s eyes still held in mine, and I relieved his hand of it’s burden. My desk drawer squealed open and I swapped out the notes for a stack of photographs. The drawer closed with a dull groan and I tossed the photos at Brace.
“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 they and your wife appear to be there of their own accord. No kidnapping.”
Brace had been busy flipping through the photographs, his eyes soaking up the leaves of flat truth, but he’d stalled at a particular picture. And I knew just the one. A small room. One bed. Two people. A frame filled with sheets and skin and sweat. The kind of picture you don’t want to get caught looking at, let alone taking. People talk about free-love and liberation, but most still want it in the dark, behind a locked door, away from prying eyes. I do find parts of my job distasteful. The stacks of filth I’ve squirrelled away, the piles of fermenting transgression, but I’m afraid private lives and dirty secrets 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 gave her everything she ever wanted. She wouldn’t have anything if it wasn’t for me!” shouting at the photograph now.
“As you say, Mr 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 and inexpensive divorce.”
“Divorce?” he echoed, eyes still on the photograph.
“I did tell you to prepare yourself for this very eventuality, Mr Brace,” my best attempt at a conciliatory tone.
“But,” he finally looked up, “that’s just something you say to everyone, surely?” his voice now equal parts desperation and defeat.
It could still go either way.
“I do, Mr Brace, and do you know why?”
He eyes were still on me. Looking out over his wife and her hippie, holy man lover.
“I say it because, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that’s the way it is.”
I turned away from his wet eyes, just to check if the filing cabinet was still there. I remembered the bottle I’d put in it, and then remembered the stuff that made the bottle necessary. When I looked back, all of Brace was still there, salty and pathetic.
“At least now, you know,” I added.
Brace avoided catching sight of his wife as his head fell, the photographs flapping their way to the floor along 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 defeat piled in a chair, bent over himself like a beaten question mark. He’d now ceased to move or speak and I had come to the decision that it was far past time he should leave. I stomped around the desk, slamming my fist on the filing cabinet for punctuation as I went. No reaction. I rattled the door knob and flung the door open, the bookcase knocking it back with a clatter into my hand. Still the sad heap in the chair. I kicked the chair-back gently and then again, hard. The third kick nearly spilled Brace onto the floor but he caught himself as his head jerked up to attention.
“Good evening, Mr Brace.”
He exit was slow but, thankfully, without fuss. And with the wretch gone, I could at last liberate my mess of papers from the filing cabinet. Along with the blessed bottle. With any luck, he’d be sad and broken for the rest of his days, but better that than show him what his wife and the priest were actually up to in those desolate hills. The desk drawer squealed before giving up a tumbler, which I quickly filled, then emptied and filled again. With the alcohol’s jagged, soothing chill both calming and jump-starting my mind, I set about, once more, to make sense of my crumpled life.