Something loud and thumping jerked me awake. My neck hurt from sleeping in my office chair – again. The hangover still sloshed behind my eyes. I rubbed at the pain in my temples and grumbled curses at whatever idiot had decided the road outside needed repair. My leg had gone numb from leaving it propped up on my desk while I slept. I leaned sideways over the worn vinyl arm of my chair and peered through the blinds, still askew from the previous night. There were no orange cones or construction crews out on the street. I gently lifted my leg off the desk and set it on the floor. I tried to figure out what the hell woke me up, and why it had done so before I had a chance to sleep off the headache. Then it happened again; a steady, insistent rapping. Someone was at the door.
“Hold on a sec,” I grumbled.
I stood up, and that was my first mistake.
The leg would move a little, and as soon as I began to move it the pins and needles began their well-orchestrated attack. Alternating painfully between fuck and shit, I cussed my way to the door. A tall silhouette darkened the leaded glass.
I opened the door to face a man dressed mostly in denim, and easily six inches taller than me. I’m average in height, so he had to be at least six-foot-three. He had a vaguely Native American cast to his features, but it looked like he hadn’t seen the sun in many moons.
“Mr. Carson?” he asked.
“That’s what the name on the door says, but if you’re with a collection agency I ain’t him,” I said, still grimacing at the phantom pains in my leg.
“Actually,” he said, reaching into his jacket.
I shoved one palm, hard, into his elbow and snatched up his collar with the other – pinning his hand between layers of fabric.
“You don’t want to do that mister,” I said.
It was about then that I noticed there was no bulge in the side of his jacket. Either they were making blue jean jackets in a new, concealed carry pattern, or he wasn’t reaching for a weapon. Still, it could have been a subpoena or something. I relaxed the pressure on his elbow and let go of his collar.
“A little jumpy for a detective, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, well,” I said, fumbling for an excuse, “Take one too many pictures of cheating spouses who lose everything in the divorce case and you start paying attention to movements like that.”
For a man I had just assaulted, he was being awfully polite. I stepped back and waved him into the office.
“What can I do for you?” I asked.
He didn’t answer right away, just looked the place over.
My office may have been a bit shabby – I’m kind of a slob – but it wasn’t a wreck. Most of my furniture was second-hand. I have a genuine, old, hardwood desk, not that particle board shit they sell to college kids. The desk took up space near the windows. A worn, vinyl office chair sat behind it. A little beat up, but none of the padding showed. It was the closest thing to leather I could afford. A mostly non-rusted filing cabinet and a couple of threadbare but comfortable chairs rounded out the ensemble. I know – you’re impressed. It may have been low-rent, but it was homey; and mine.
He looked as if he was making up his mind about me before he spoke.
“I’d like to hire you. That is, of course, if you are Caleb Carson,” he said with an almost imperceptible smile curling at the corners of his mouth.
“The one and only. So far as I know,” I said.
“Surely there cannot be two Third Eye Detective Agencies in Knoxville,” he said, again with the barest trace of humor.
“Surely,” I said.
It was my turn to give him the once-over.
He was tall but slim – all long lines and sharp angles, even under the denim. His black hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail. But his eyes were the kicker. They were the color of pale emeralds and seemed to sparkle like he held some secret knowledge no one else was worthy to share. That notwithstanding, he looked like an ok guy to me or at least one who could pay the freight.
“Made up your mind,” he said. I wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement of fact.
“Yeah, I suppose. Have a seat.”
He moved to sit with a grace and confidence I didn’t usually see in clients. His worn, old boots didn’t make a sound when he moved. I filed it away for future pondering.
“What can I help you with?” I asked.
“I’m trying to recover a lost item.”
“That’s not my usual thing,” I said, simultaneously wanting to be straight with him and wishing that I hadn’t. “Divorces, deadbeat dads, cheating spouses; that’s my typical board of fare.”
“From what I’ve read in the paper, you appear to be branching out.”
Images of Delilah’s small and savaged face shot through my brain. I tried to shrug it off and focus on the matter at hand. The hangover made it easier.
“Forgive me for bringing up a tender subject,” he said, “but the circumstances surrounding the case lead me to believe that you are exactly the right person to handle my problem.”
“Maybe,” I said and limped over to the filing cabinet, “Coffee?”
“Sounds good,” he said.
I splashed some water on my face when I went into the bathroom to rinse out the coffee pot. I looked like hell. Red-rimmed eyes sat in hollow, dark circles above the ridges of my cheekbones. My hair was a mess, and a good two days’ worth of stubble poked out of my face. Not a picture of the modern, professional private eye by any standard. It had been a long month.
We waited in silence as the coffee percolated and I ran a comb through my hair. When the java finished brewing, I grabbed two mugs from the filing cabinet and rinsed them out in the sink. Handing a client coffee laced with some night’s Southern Comfort binge is a good way to lose said client.
“Thank you,” he said as I handed him the mug of joe.
“Sure,” I said, “How about you tell me about this lost item of yours.”
“I have a picture,” he said and reached into the same place in his jacket as before. “I was going to show you earlier before I underestimated the extent of your paranoia.”
I shot him a snicker and rolled up the sleeve on my left arm.
“Paranoia is when they’re not really out to get you,” I said, showing him the half-moon of jagged scar tissue that resided just below my elbow, “I got this from a guy I photographed cheating on his wife and mistress. He was not happy. Broken whiskey bottle. Eighteen stitches.”
“I can see the necessity for caution then,” he said.
“Yeah, well, it saves on visits to the emergency room if I’m a little extra careful with strangers,” I said, “Speaking of; what is your name?”
He smiled at that, maybe just a touch embarrassed by his lack of propriety. I think.
“Of course,” he said, “My name is Grant Whitehall. It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Carson.”
“Please, only assholes and the police have to call me Mr. Carson. Caleb will do just fine.”
“Pleasure to meet you as well,” I said, trying desperately not to mock his impeccable manners.
He grinned and handed me a glossy-print photograph. He held it gently – as if he was afraid it might crumble in his hands and blow away. I took it just as delicately. Immediately, the angry electric bees started buzzing at my brain stem.
I held it in my hand and felt the tingling like a joy buzzer wrapped in velvet.
This happened to me, enough that I thought I’d be used to it. It was fucking scary at first, but that was three years ago. Not a painful sensation, but too insistent to ignore. Whenever I was around something strange, something hidden beneath the surface of normal perception, the angry electric bees – that’s how I imagined it – started buzzing in the back of my head. It wouldn’t go away until I’d figured it out, whatever “it” was. I’d say I was psychic if it was ever anything other than a semi-annoying buzz in my nervous system. They probably have pills for that sort of thing. And besides, if I really were psychic, you’d think I’d have won the lottery by now.
He must have seen something in my face shift.
“Then it is true,” he said, maybe just a little excited, “You are gifted.”
“I thought that term was special,” I said, “but you know, we prefer to be called differently-abled these days.”
“I do my homework, Mr. Car… Forgive me, Caleb,” he said, “Is it true that you have no memories of your life beyond three years ago?”
“I forget,” I said. Oh, how I love amnesia humor.
“Quite right,” he said with a short snort of a laugh, “You are a character, Caleb. Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps your gift and your lack of memory might stem from the same incident?”
“Well, not really knowing who I was before I woke up in this town; no, I haven’t given it much thought.”
“I know quite a broad range of talented individuals Caleb. I’m sure at least one could be of assistance to you.”
This is not the first time someone has suggested going to a shrink.
“Really, I prefer cash,” I said, “By the by, it’s fifty bucks an hour plus reasonable expenses. You handle that?”
“Certainly,” he said, without the wisps of insult that usually steam off my clients when I mention the rate, “I am quite capable of paying your fees. But, besides payment, I would still be willing to introduce you to some of my friends.”
“I don’t like psychologists.”
“Just the young lady, then?”
I had to hand it to this guy; he had done his homework. He even knew about Allison. I tried not to let the shudder of creepy semi-awe that danced down my spine show on my face.
“She’s still a student,” I said, wondering why I was scrambling to justify, “She’s not a full-blown head-shrinker yet.”
“So do I,” I said, trying to shove the subject away from my personal life, “Why don’t you go to the police with this?”
“Why should I involve the police?”
“Because the thing isn’t lost. It’s been stolen.”
He looked at me for a long moment – a stony, calculating stare. Then he shook his head and smiled.
“You are gifted. And quite perceptive,” he said, “The item was indeed stolen.”
At that point, I finally looked at the picture in my hand.
The blade, in the photo, was large – nearly eight inches of edge and gleam before tapering into a thin strip. The exposed metal of the tang had an inscription on it, but I’d be damned if I could read the language. At least I assumed it was some kind of language. The whole thing looked as if, during the forging process, it had been dipped in an acid bath. The resulting corrosion had revealed spidery veins of green in the folds of metal. I had never seen anything quite like it before. It looked old, bronze-age old. I have a few knives myself, but I couldn’t tell where it was made or what culture had forged it. It was a thing of terrible beauty; at once sleek and shimmering and altogether deadly. That much I could glean from the blade’s construction: this was a weapon for killing. At, least it had been at some time in the ancient past.
“Marvelous, isn’t it?”
“Sure,” I said, “Must be expensive.”
“Priceless,” he said.
“All the more reason to go to the police.”
“The police are so formal,” he said, “All that paperwork and red tape and evidence lock up. I’m afraid I just don’t have the time required to pursue this through conventional channels.”
“You on some kind of deadline?”
“You could say that,” he said, “I need the artifact for a very special ceremony, and I need it soon.”
“Why don’t you just let the cops handle it and perform the ceremony the next time it comes around?”
“The circumstances of this particular ceremony only allow it to be performed once every one-hundred and fifty years,” he said, “I’m afraid I don’t have that long to wait.”
“Are you in some kind of cult?”
“Oh, heavens no,” he said with another of his short laughs, “No, no cult. But I do observe certain esoteric traditions. That doesn’t bother you, does it?”
“Not as long as your money is good,” I said scanning the loud, red-lettered past due notices on my desk.
“I assure you that it is.”
“Cash in hand is always the best assurance, I find,” I said.
“Then you’ll take my case?”
“Yeah. Why not?”
“Thank you,” he said taking a roll of hundred-dollar bills from his pocket. The roll had to be as thick as my thumb. He handed them to me.
“When do you need the item?”
“In three days,” he said, “If that is not enough money, I will be happy to have more sent to your office today.”
“No,” I said, “This will do just fine as a retainer. I’ll have an itemized bill for you at the end of the case.”
“That will be satisfactory,” he said, “Caleb, I would be most interested in sitting down to talk with you again, about less pressing matters.”
“If you still feel that way in four days, maybe we will.”
“I’m certain of it.”
I wasn’t sure just how to take his certainty, but I let it slide until later. He got up to leave.
“I don’t suppose you have any leads to get me started?”
“Actually, I do,” he said, “My security cameras picked up something odd on the night of the theft. Maybe it will mean something to you. Do you have a VCR?”
“No, but I can borrow one.”
“Very good,” he said, “I’ll have a copy of the tape delivered to you today.”
“Just don’t be long about it.”
“Have no fear of that,” he said.
Then, he inclined his head to me in a brief nod, smiled, and strode out of my office. Again, I noticed, he made no noise – not even on the cheap tile in the hall. Like he floated down the hall or something.
I downed three ibuprofen with the rest of my coffee and set the mugs in the sink. Sitting in the worn vinyl creases of my chair, I stared out the window and waited for my headache to subside. Questions kept nagging me. How had he known about Allison? Was he having me followed? And how the hell did he know about my amnesia? It’s not like I keep it top secret, but I sure don’t spread it around either. It’s bad for business being a private eye who just happens to not remember anything, at least not before three years ago when I woke up in that emergency room. I could see my trickle of clients completely drying up when that news got out. Maybe I would get it again, take their money and forget that I promised to find whomever. Maybe I would forget to show up for court, or the whereabouts of some incriminating picture would slip my mind. Couldn’t blame them if the calls stopped coming in, not that they were coming in too frequently anyway. I guess I had the same fears, and that’s why I never really told people about my condition. Or maybe it’s just what I told myself then. I was spiraling in ever-tighter circles of strange thought when the phone rang.
“Caleb Carson,” I said, cradling the receiver between my ear and shoulder.
“You sound tired. Were you sleeping? At three in the afternoon?” said the gruff voice on the other end of the line.
“Just a power nap, Detective Hagen,” I grumbled, “That’s not illegal yet, is it?”
“Still a smart-ass, even when you’re half asleep,” he said.
“Yeah, well, some men just have more talent than most,” I said through a yawn. If the phone hadn’t rung, I would have probably gone back to sleep. The painkillers were starting to kick in, and the sun through the blinds felt warm and soft. Perfect for napping, at least until the tape arrived.
“Some talent,” the voice in the receiver said.
“Hey,” I said, hoping I was coming across as something near friendly, “Not all of us can be working in the fabulously glamorous weird crimes division of Knoxville’s finest, now can we?”
“Oh, but we can,” he said, “And that’s Special Crimes Division to you. The captain wants your expert opinion on something.”
“Is he willing to pay for my expert opinion?” I asked, “And, as I recall, things did not go smoothly the last time I worked with your department.”
“No, they didn’t,” he said, “and yes, we’re willing to pay your fee.”
I would have shouted woo-hoo if I didn’t have a reputation to maintain. It looked like I was going to be able to pay the bills that month after all.
“What’s the thing?”
“Captain says I shouldn’t bias you,” he replied, “so you’re just going to have to meet me there and see for yourself.”
“Ok. Where and when?”
“Corner of Thirteenth and Clinch, as soon as you can drag your ass down there.”
“I don’t have a lot of time,” I said, “Got a case.”
“Good for you,” he said, “This shouldn’t take too long. Ten minutes maybe.”
“That interesting, huh?” I asked.
“Oh. Yeah. When can you get there?”
“It’s about six blocks from here. How about fifteen minutes?”
“Fifteen minutes? For six blocks? This isn’t New York Caleb.”
“I need to clean up a little first.”
“Sure. Ok, fifteen minutes.”
“See you there.”
I slung the receiver back onto the cradle and shuffled into my small bathroom. Ten minutes later, freshly shaven and wearing a clean shirt, I grabbed my coat and hat and headed for the address.
After a month of nothing but bad press, I had two paying cases dropped in my lap within twenty minutes of each other. Some days it just doesn’t pay to be hung over.