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, with the telephone’s rattling dance, had interrupted me. Now that 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, 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.
Brace brought in the smell of too many cigarettes and too little soap. His was 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 round 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 I’d have to wade though with the mess in the filing cabinet. 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 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 and I felt a thrilling wave of heat and static wriggling up my neck just thinking of things I could do with him. This pathetic collection of meat and bone just waiting to be useful. Visceral delights that could buy my days, maybe months. A precession of crimson danced through my mind, bright flashes of tender dismantling. But, in the end Brace did not blink. I let out a grudging breath, deciding to play the professional.
“I’m going to need my fee before that, Mr Brace.”
“You’ll get your money, woman! Just tell me!”
His palm slapping at 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 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 flayed on he desk, sweaty condensation growing between his pale fingers.
“My fee, Mr Brace,” I said, reaching behind and fishing an invoice from the tray on top of the filing cabinet.
I placed it on the desk and his hand slid over to take the slip of paper.
“£165, Mr Brace.”
His jaw tightened as his hand turned the paper, his 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. It extracted his wallet and began thumbing at the leather and notes. Once it had selected an appropriate assortment, it pulled out the currency, folded it once and held it out over the desk. As I leaned forward to take my money, Brace’s hand lifted it out of my reach while our eyes paired off.
“Where is my wife?” his voice quieter now, calmer.
I stood, Brace’s eyes still held in mine, and 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, a dull groan this time, 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’s hands had been busy flipping through the photographs, his eyes soaking up the leaves of flat truth, but now they’d stalled at a particular picture. I knew just the one. A small room. One bed. Two people. A frame filled with sheets, 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 and away from prying eyes. I do find parts of my job distasteful. The stacks of filth I’ve squirrelled away, piles of fermenting transgression, but I’m afraid private lives and dirty secrets are my bread and butter. 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, 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 lover.
“I say it because, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that’s the way it is.”
I turned away from the 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’s eyes avoided catching sight of his wife as his head fell, the other 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 had now ceased to move or speak. 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 out onto the floor and his head finally jerked up with a start.
“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; better that than show him what they did with her afterwards. The drawer squealed before giving up a tumbler which I quickly filled, 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.