The year, was two-thousand-and-hell. I had just rented a small office above a laundrymat where I knew people were having sex, but every time I went to check, they were just doing laundry. The door said Private Eye, but my letterhead still said Web Designer.
I once stole a hundred dollars from my parents and got away with it. When I did it I made it look like we were robbed-- I smashed the TV in my parents room and threw a bunch of underwear everywhere. My parents were really upset that we had been robbed and they called the police who took notes. I remember looking at them and smiling because they would never guess I did it, that I had the money right there in my pocket. The perfect crime, but that's as far as it went-- I didn't have a plan for that kind of money, so after awhile it just kind of ate away at me. I stayed in my room, laying the five twenty-dollar bills out on the carpet and kneeling in front of them, enraptured. It was too much, and eventually I flushed it down the toilet and ran away from home. I got hungry and it was kind of cold that day so I came back, and when I did I couldn't contain it any longer; I told my parents it was me. I remember my dad asking if they should call the police, and my mom said no, then yes, and then no, because the police might take me to jail. They didn't call the police. Then my dad said he didn't understand why I would do it, but that he knew it had been me because I was acting strangely. But I knew deep down he couldn't have known. I had outsmarted my parents completely.
But that got me thinking.
What if there was a way to know. What if you could find the clues, like: why smash the TV and not just steal it, too? Why only the underwear scattered around? Why only the money stolen and not the jewelry? What if you could put those clues together and really figure it out. So that's when I knew.
But what about Ralph. Ralph my younger brother. What if he was actually the one that stole the money? I could remember doing it but also it seemed possible he had instead. I felt bad for stealing the money, and then I felt worse that my parents were disappointed in me, and so I went and told them that actually it had been Ralph. That confused them. "Ralph is much too little." said mom. "Why are you saying this? Why are you doing this?" said dad. I had forgotten to take into account that Ralph was too little, and that my parents would figure this out. Also I had made the crucial mistake of already confessing to it.
But that got me thinking.
What if I could use my brain and make crimes appear to be done by someone else? If clues could work one way, couldn't they work the other way too? Could I find clues that would make it so that the bad person who ought to have comitted the crime was the one to get in trouble, whereas the good person who might have actually done it, or thought they did it, but were more of an innocent person at heart, could get away scot-free? This seemed amazing, like the sky opening up into the deepesh shade of purple. I knew I was onto something special, and I would hold that secret to my chest with both fists clenched for my whole life.
Every customer that came into my door, the first thing I asked them after I decided if they were innocent or not was always: "Are you sure you didn't do it? Because if you did, I can help you get off scot-free. Because I can tell you are a good person at heart." Sometimes after that they left without paying the fee, other times they would pay it but be angry. Still in those cases I made some dough.
I'd been at it a month though and only had two clients. One who had left after I asked if they did it-- she was a widow, and had been scammed (so she said) out of ten thousand dollars by a man claiming to be collecting a bill for her husband's funeral. She wanted me to help find the man who scammed her. I knew right away that she was an innocent person but I wondered if she didn't steal the money from her husband's funeral, herself. I thought if we could find the scammer, we could pin it on him, and that way it would be a double-good: she would get off scot-free, and the scammer would be behind bars. She left without paying; she didn't say much but I thought for a second she would cry. After that I wasn't so sure if she was really an innocent person, but I still felt bad.
The second one was a man who said his business partner had stolen their money and fled the country. I asked him where, he said he didn't know but thought maybe Aruba. "Aruba," I said. "Aruba. Okay, I see. Mr...?" "Moire" "Mr. Moire. I believe you. And I believe you are innocent." "Inno... What? Why would I be..." "I believe you are an innocent person. But before we proceed, I have one more question: Did you actually steal the money and kill your partner?" At this his eyebrows raised up almost two centimeters above his brow line and for two seconds he said nothing. "What? WHAT!? No, god. What? No!! Why... Oh my god, okay. Okay. I'm done here." He stormed out, so angry. For some reason he payed the initial consultation fee, though, so: my first paying customer! That night I would celebrate at McDonald's with Ainsley or whatever my girlfriends name was.
Which brings us to now.
When the same walked in, I was still thinking about Ralph, but I was thinking about how he had a home in The Glades and was wondering if I could borrow his lawnmower, just to take apart and find out how it worked. When I was making a plan on whether I should ask for the lawnmower first, or his tools first, there was a knock on the door.
"Who is it?" The door opened. "I thought I had that locked." I was in the process of getting up from my seat.
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"No, no, come in come in. I'm open for business. Always am. I just keep the door locked until I know who it is."
A pause. "Oh, I'm sorry."
"No worries, I can already see you're an innocent person. Please sit down." I guestured to my chair. I was getting the hang of this! I sat back in my chair, reached into my desk and cracked a can of coke, which I then poured into my cup. "What seems to be the matter? And what did you say your name was?"
"Roxanne," she said, taking a deep breath. "Roxanne K. But please call me Mrs. K."
"Alright Mrs. K. What seems to be the matter?"
"It's my husband. I think... I think he's cheating on me." She looked down, and I could tell she was starting to cry, but an angry cry.
"Hmn. I see." I had to think about this. It was unexpected-- I never expected to be involved in someone's personal life like this. I had to know what I was dealing with, here. "Is he some big shot or something?"
A pause. "I don't know what you mean."
I took a drink from my coke, then sighed sharply. "You know. A ladies man. A big shot. A handsome guy. Does he have big muscles? A moustache? Nice hair?"
It was a bit while she just sort of looked down at her black purse. "Look I... I don't know. I think he's probably handsome. I mean I find him that way. Or I did, before he started to ignore me and stay out really late without any explanation."
"Hmn, out late at night, eh? That is troubling."
"I've got to be honest, and this might come as a shock. But I think, Mrs. K., your husband may be cheating on you." The clues pointed to it, but I knew she she loved her husband too much to connect the dots herself. Denial is a powerful drug.
She looked at me for a second with her head tilted. "Well yes that's what I came in for."
"Mmm-hmm. Alright. I believe you." Now was the time for my trademark pitch, which I was refining. "I can tell you're an innocent person, I knew it right from the moment I saw you and that you were wearing lipstick and were really well-dressed. So I just have one question: Are you sure it isn't actually YOU that your husband is having the affair with, behind your back?" She looked up but I cut her off before she could say anything. "I want you to know: if you're the one he's cheating on you with, we will find a way to make the clues point to HIM cheating on you, with you (or whoever else he is cheating on you with), so we can pin it on him. He'll get his just desserts-- no worries at all. You see: based on what you have told me I think he is probably a bad guy."
She took a deep breath in. I realized I had been rude to her, so I held out the can: "Sorry; do you want the rest of my coke?"
She started to stand up. "I think I have to be going. Let me write you a cheque."
I had a bolt of inspiration. This must be the moment that entrepreneurs talked about: I was about to go public. "No need."
"What do you mean?"
"I'll do the job for free."
"Hardshoe. Max Hardshoe."
"Mr. Hardshoe, I am not sure if it's a good fit."
"You let me worry about that. Sometimes, we lawyers do things pro-bono. It's part of the lawyer code."
"You're a lawyer?"
"No, but, you get the idea. The same thing applies. Let me help you out here. If nothing comes of it, and it turns out we can't find clues that we can make it look like your husband is the one having an affair, not you, then no harm done. We'll go our separate ways. But we can frame him, if we try hard enough. He deserves it."
She sort of stood up and squared her shoulders. "Alright. Look. Just find whatever you can. Here's where he works."
She handed me a business card, I made sure to take it with both hands: "Thank you."
"He's out from 8 until usually 10pm."
"8 in the morning?"
"Yes, that's right."
"Bit of an early riser, then, I wonder what he's up to before work."
"I don't think he's doing anything before work, he has to start at 8:30 every day."
"Just find out what you can, Mr. Hardshoe."
She walked out the door without paying the fee, but I had told her it was free. But still, it seemed rude.
I went to the door and opened it, she was mostly down the hall: "Mrs. K., you won't be disappointed, I can promise that."
She turned to look at me and then kind of shook her head and turned the hallway corner to walk down the steps.
The very next morning I left a sign on my door:
"On Stakeout Back @ 3pm (MAYBE)"
I then locked the door and headed out. I would need supplies, and the first supply I would buy was going to be comfortable Birkenstock sandals. If I got sore feet it would be game over, but I also needed to be cool and stylish-- you couldn't be a "private eye" without first being "private".
I had walked past the sandal store every day since starting the new job, but now that I had my first paying customer (well, not actually paying but basically a paying customer) I could finally justify making the purchase I had been dreaming about for the last week. I walked in.
"Hi there." A friendly sandalperson greeted me. That was my first clue: this was going to be a good place.
I smiled confidently. "Hi. I'm wondering, can I see this sandal in the window but in a size 9?"
"Which one?" The sandalperson came over.
"Ah, this one. I've had my eye on it walking past every morning."
"Sure, just let me get it from the back."
A little bit of credit card debt later and I was walking out of the store with my new sandals in a box tucked under my arm. My existing velcro runners I'd wear until I got closer to my target. I could change shoes on the bus which would make it basically impossible to track me.
But my next problem was what bus to take.
An hour and a half later, I arrived downtown. Stepping off the bus, I took a look at the gray pavement and neatly dressed office workers brisking along with thier coffees and employed gazes just past where the blue metal pipe of the bus bench separated me from them. It didn't seem possible that this many people were doing something worthwhile enough that they could afford to eat at the downtown eateries, yet here they were.
I was immediately glad I had brought a hoagie in my briefcase, something that none of the smartly dressed employees of downtown companies had.
I walked around the bench and stood a little bit off in case a bus came. I didn't want to block the bus. I had a bus map in my pants pocket and so I pulled it out. A free map, but it included more than just the bus routes; much more.
I quickly located the office where Mrs. K.'s husband was supposed to be working at present. It was six blocks away, so I started in that direction. I hadn't gone half a block though, when unexpectedly and out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a man and a woman having lunch together. A suspicious man and a woman.
I noted my watch: 12:45PM. It would be Mrs. K.'s husband's lunch hour— hardly a coincidence. And here he was with another woman— just like Mrs. K. said she thought he would be. Not only that, but Mrs. K said he ate at his desk. This was not his desk! Well, even so, I knew that what I needed now were clues.
I decided to follow them. Maybe they would hang their jackets or purses somewhere and I could rifle them. I could also note where they went and what they did. It was bound to add up to something!
Watching them, I could tell their lunch would be quick. The were talking animatedly and using their chopsticks quickly on their noodle bowls. I could see them through the restaurant window and watched them for some time until I realized that if they saw me, the gig would be up.
I had to be more professional than staring conspicuously into the windows of restauraunts. After all, I was a private eye now and I had had the sandals to prove it. So, I turned and casually crouched down, facing the street. I set the briefcase on the ground and opened it up. In addition to the hoagie, there was a notepad and pencil I had packaged. That's when I remembered that for this to be legal I had to write everything down:
12:45. Downtown somewhere. Walking to her husbands office, spotted a suspicious couple at lunch. Restaurant called Globe Mango. Couple talking animatedly while eating noodles. Man brown hair. Woman brown hair. Waitress brown hair. Will follow.
My log entry done, still crouching, I opened the hoagie. My legs were starting to get tired from being crouched over so long, so I stood up and stretched, leaving the briefcase open. I held the still-wrapped hoagie in my left hand, and with my right I pulled my left elbow behind my head-- something I had learned to do at school called a "stretch". I leaned to the left and the right, being careful not to scrape my hoagie on any piece of the city. To complete the stretch, I took a deep breath in, exhaled while counting to five, and then one more breath. I unwrapped the hoagie.
The first bite was incredible, and it hit my brain like an explosion of taste in my mouth. I hadn't known food could taste like this. Sanj had tried to explain the deliciousness of real store-boughtten food before, but nothing could have prepared me for biting into this hoagie.
I was halfway through my wonder wheel when I noticed the door to the shop open. I had been too overwhelmed by taste to notice, but the couple had gotten up, paid, and were now about to walk down the street. I quickly put the hoagie back into my briefcase and closed it, catching a small strip of saran wrap out the side. The couple was already on the move, their backs to me. Cursing, I realized I would have to fix the corner of poking-out saran wrap later-- I could only hope it wouldn't be noticable.
As I followed them, my shirt began to billow larger than would be usual. In fact, my stride widened and my suit suddenly felt an incredible navy. My collar was ruffled and I knew I was the most handsom creature to prowl this block, and for all eternity. Sunglasses manifested themsevles on my face and the ruffles on my shirt now had a blue fringe, blue round smooth buttons. I smiled until it expanded to fill my chin and my chin turned itself up to the sky.
For the tiniest smudge of a moment, a perfect dirty fingerprint in reality, I knew that I should have been named Donnie.
And then it all deflated. I had moved a few steps, my suit was navy but not navy, and my shirt didn't have any ruffles. I was confused, but then I saw the couple turn the corner and so I started into a run, my briefcase flapping awkwardly at my side.
Rounding the corner, I slowed to a normal walk. A block back there was a man with a moustache and apron arranging apples at a grocery store, and he had looked up from his work when I ran by. I didn't want to get noticed. I especially didn't want to get noticed by the couple I was tailing.
The navy experience I had just had, along with learning my true name (I couldn't remember it now) had to be a clue of some kind. But about what? And then I had a sudden realization: it was a clue about the hoagie.
With expert casualness gained from years of imagining myself a private eye, I checked my watch, then realized I wasn't wearing one, so I seamlessly transitioned the movement to wiping sweat from my brow. It was convincing: I even had myself fooled.
I could see the couple up ahead. I continued following them, being sure not to stare at them but instead keep them just in my peripheral vision, all the while periodically stopping to pretend to stare into shop windows, stretch, that kind of thing.
Somewhere between there and here I realized that the couple had not headed in the place of the husband's work office, but had gone down to the warehouse district, down by the docks. A rough part of town.
Not the kind of place to take a nice lady after a date, especially a mistress, unless a very potent and mysterious affair was going on indeed. For a moment, I wasn't sure how to interpret this clue. Why were they going to a warehouse?
The time for surreptitious following was long past. There was no real way to remain inconspicuous if I was seen, so deserted were the warehouse blocks, that I had been forced to hide out of sight. This I did as casually as I could muster, but at the same time I knew from my private eye training on the web that hiding was dangerous, with one exception, because it (hiding, not counting the one exception) would always look suspicious. The one exception was hiding in plain sight, but I couldn't think how to do that here.
There was an open door that the couple had walked into. I counted to fourty-five and boldly strode across the courtyard-alley. It was littered with forklifts, pallets, and a few mislaid construction supplies such as pipes and beams so I had to be careful not to knock any of them over. Reaching the door, I peeked inside the small almost-square window, but it was totally dark inside. It was at this point that I guessed that this Dr. Licht must be some kind of vampire, someone whom light is harmful for. Even though he used light magic.
I tried the handle of the door. It opened quietly, and I stepped in, closed the door behind me quieter still. So far so good.
As soon as I was inside, I could hear some kind of chanting. It was dark except for the light streaming into the door's window, but around the corner I could see some sunlight emanating. I guesed it was the windows I had seen earlier from the outside, but something was off about the layout-- even with my private eye senses I was having a hard time correlating the outside of this building with what was inside.
What business was going on here? The sound of chanting was coming not from the light hallway, but from behind another door that led the opposite way from the entryway. A dark door into a dark space.
I wondered: Did the couple not understand the sheer comdey of survival? This was a forged environment, dark, powerful, hard, unshapely. Were they coming here to have sex? And with the chanting?
I closed my eyes and went to my safe place. Once there, I inhaled deeply for a moment and thought about it.
Laundrymat sex had always seemed so loving to me. I had a collection, and that was one clue, but there were more. A laundrymat was a place that people had to go to, people who might want to have sex. But also, they had to wash their clothes, and they couldn't wear their clothes while they were being washed. So if laundrymats were a normal place for people to have sex, everyone could get all their clothes clean while they were waiting.
Another clue: people often had nothing to do in a laundrymat. Why not spend that time doing something fun? They were well-lit. You could really see what was going on in there. And because of the dryers, laundrymats were always warm. There was never any need to wear clothes, there, really.
Finally, I knew from research that people liked vibrating devices when they were having sex. A laundrymat was full of devices that could vibrate your entire body.
So many things just fit together so perfectly with laundrymat sex; it couldn't be a coincidence. Because I had ensuite laundry, I had never had the chance. But the laundrymat below my office made me think about it a lot. A guy could daydream!
But just now, my daydreams had to end, because here I was, in a warehouse, and there was chanting, and maybe the woman's husband was here to have an affair, an alien and dark affair with a woman that wasn't the woman whose husband to he was. I shuddered: what would warehouse sex be like?
Grimly, I continued down the dark hallway toward the chanting.
Finally, my heart beating, I pushed my way through a pair of blue swing-doors with round, porthole windows beyond which I could see a gauzy red light emanating. The twists and turns through the warehouse had been disorienting; I knew I must be in the center of the place, but I had no sense which direction I was facing. The combination was so disorienting that when I pushed through the doors, as slowly and as narrowly as I could and still fit through in a crouch, I felt like I was stepping into the gates of hell.
The doors swung gently shut behind me without any sound. Beyond them, plastic strips hung from the ceiling, a kind of curtain, and beyond those, cellophane sheets hung disheveld and torn, blowing around slightly.
A few twists and turns back the chanting had become clear enough for me to make out. It sounded like approximately twenty or thirty people and they were saying, over and over, in monotone:
Computers are bad. Computers must die. Waa-ooh waa-ooh waa-ooh waa. Computers are bad. Computers must die. Waa-ohh waa-ooh waa-ohh waa. Abomination! Of desolation! Waa-ooh-waa! Waa-ooh-waa! Abomination! Beyond salvation! Waa-ooh-waa! Waa-ooh-waa!
After each recitation there was a short pause, someone shook some bells, and there was a loud snap like a long piece of wood hitting a block of stone; each time it made me jump, the hairs on my neck standing on end.
I hadn't thought about it until now— the adrenaline must've had kept me on edge. Computers? What did the affair have to do with computers? It just didn't fit.
I crept closer to the red light.
I could see now that I was right on the estimate of the number of people. I could count 26. They were arranged in a circle surrounding a metal piano, and, no-- it was 27. A person in white robes had appeared from behind the piano. He was carrying jingle bells and a broom stick, the source of the chants' intermissory sounds. At the end of each verse, he would jingle the bells in a circle with his left hand, raise the stick with his right, and beat the cement floor near the piano. As the chants continued, he would walk slowly around the piano, so that each time he beat the floor, it was along a circle around the instrument, sort of warding it. All this I watched, mesmerized, and getting a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
The 26 27 people in the circle were arrayed casually and wearing ordinary street clothes. Scanning, I pinpointed the woman's husband and his lover standing close together, eyes fixated on the piano. Another woman held a starbucks iced coffee; she, too, was transfixed.
It was then I caught myself mouthing the words, quietly, under my breath. I had to snap out of it! I had already stood up and I looked to myself like I was about to join the circle. That would be bad! To regain control, I crept away from the door a little bit and hid myself better behind a metal cabinet of some kind. I next opened my briefcase to take out my notebook, since my notes could be evidence in a court of law, or so I had read. At this point the hoagie had smeared a little bit of sauce on the inside but it was otherwise all OK.
I made a log entry:
At warehouse. Husband and lover present at cult circle. Piano in middle. Man (?) in robes leading ceremony. Hate computers, abomination. Not sure the link to affair! No warehouse sex yet.
I closed my briefcase but I left it there on the floor. Leaning in closer, I went from crouching down to flat on my stomach. I was hoping that I had truly not been noticed, that I was well enough hidden and not just ignored because everyone was transfixed by the piano.
Only now I could see— it was no piano. And then, just then as I started to coalesce what it actually was, something shifted I started to think for a second about the buttons on my shirt, and the beautiful blue ruffle that it suddenly had again. I squirmed a little bit since I felt uncomfortable. I thought about how unspeakable it was to wrest a pearl from a clam and turn it into a blue button, of all things. I began to loathe my shirt and feel despondent, but then I realized: my shirt was a clam, that was the meaning of the ruffles. It was a sure clue that my shirt was growing the buttons; otherwise why else would they be pearls? I looked at a button to be sure, but I realized it would be growing too slowly to see. So instead I listened to it, putting it right up to my ear, and indeed I could hear the sounds that were at the bottom of the sea floor, a bloop-de-gloop and kind of motorboat engine far away and muffled so only the low tones were visibile, but also ping..... ping..... ping..... from a radar of a nuclear submarine. It was then that I knew that my shirt was all-natural underesea clam and cotton, and I felt relief and even a small amount of pride in it. Suddnely it didn't have ruffles or pearl buttons, and I thought it must have been the LSD from the hoagie again.
I shook my head and squinted. I could see now-- it wasn't a piano. It was... metal. And it had buttons, no, switches of some kind. It looked like... a computer!
As this clue fell wonderlike into place, I felt the exhilaration of solving a mystery. They were chanting that they hated computers, and they were all standing around a computer. But what did this have to do with the affair!?
I kept watching, and the chanting went on for some time. Again I had to stop myself from going along with it, and then just as I was about to lose my resolve and stand up and join the circle, the leader in robes held up their arms and the chanting immediately stopped.
There was a low, murmured chuckle, as if he had made a joke, but just then I could not tell what the joke was.
"Luddites! That's right. That's what they call us, for hating technology. But we don't hate technology, we hate computers!
"Let me read you something. This is from Mark, Chapter 6.
And Jesus went down to the riverbank, and he saw there were many people gathered. "Why are you gathered here?" He asked them. "We were told of jewels in the river, Sensei, so we came to see for ourselves if we might become rich!" "Smart!" replied Jesus, "Jewels are worth a lot of money. But what if there are no jewels?" "We hadn't thought of that." And Jesus went away, cursing them.
The leader continued: "Now, if you're like me, when you hear this story, it doesn't make sense. At first it seems like Jesus is praising them for getting their money. But then, at the end there, he curses them! Why did he curse them?
"That's like, if I'm at your house, and I said 'Why did you invest in Coca-cola shares?' and you said, 'I heard they were going to go up', and I said, 'Ah! Good for you.' And then I said, 'Curse you!' and stormed out of your house.
"If you're like me, you might be wondering-- what was Jesus thinking? It seems a little weird, suddenly cursing them.
"But listen to what Jesus says right before he does. He says:
"But what if there are no jewels?"
"'But what if there are no jewels?' Let that hang in the air just a minute. You see, the people had come to the riverbank for jewels, and they were peering in. I don't know, scripture doesn't say, but I can imagine they were probably wading in, looking for jewels along the bottom. Maybe some were even reaching down, going through rocks, looking for jewels.
"And Jesus says: 'But what if there are no jewels?'
"I have a son, I don't know if you know this, he's just turned 6. Apostle. He's into everything! And I mean everything. The other day, I looked away for just a minute and when I looked back, he's on the floor, and he has a jam jar open and is smearing jam all over his stuffed toys. What a mess!
"'Apostle', I said to him. 'Stop! What are you doing?'"
"'I'm combining my stuffies with jam so they can sleep'"
"I was very confused. I wanted him to stop but I also didn't want to stifle his creativity, and by now I was immensely curious as to what he was doing. 'Why will the jam help them to sleep, Apostle?'
"And my son, he looked at me, and with the most serious face I've seen him make, he said: 'Because they need jammies'"
At this, there was a fairly significant chortle from many of the people present, and even I found myself chuckling quietly. Once the laughter had died down, the leader continued.
"A funny story. But I'm telling you this story for a reason. You see, my son was trying to do something good and right. But he just fundamentally misunderstood. He thinks jammies are the same thing as jam-- absurd! And in the same way, I think the people in Jesus' story, the people by the riverbank, they're trying to do something good: get rich! You see, they think there are jewels down there. But they forgot one important thing, that Jesus pointed out: 'What if there are no jewels?'"
The leader paused for a minute, and some organ music started up on it's own, seemingly from nowhere. Somehow, despite all the flat surfaces, it didn't reverberate but sounded like it was playing in a carpeted funeral home. The tune was, "Amazing Grace".
"Carl." The leader turned to his right, and I saw a man step forward carrying a silver platter. On it was a piece of wood and a can of what looked like beer. The leader took the piece of wood from the platter and held it up, and it was then that I could see what it was-- an axe! Just with a wooden handle, so when lying down it would be perfectly disguised. Next, he took the beer.
"This is the axe which we use to chop the computer up, to open a hole in the side, to let the electricity flow into it." He set the axe back down on the silver platter, that Carl held quietly.
He picked up the beer.
"And this is the beer, to remind us, that electricity flows in us as well."
He closed his eyes. Immediately after he did, everyone present lowered their heads. I lowered mine, too, trying to look inconspicuous, but actually I was looking up, looking for evidence. My training had taught me that.
After a moment the leader began, solemnly:
"Heavenly father. All-seeing one." A pause.
"Genius! Who created the heavens. Hallowed one, crowned in glory.
"We come here together to ask you that your power might flow through me, flow through the axe, as we complete our duty to you.
"May we not be like the people on the river bank, who think we are doing something good but are actually confusing what 'jammies' are.
"May we always be mindful of what Jesus commanded: 'What if there are no jewels.'"
He didn't seem to finish the prayer but instead took the beer can.
"At this time, I would ask that you bring to the Lord all your sins of the week, that we may offer them to Him as I shotgun this beer."
He began to shake the can very vigorously. After a short time, he reached into his back pocket and produced a small pocket-knife. He cut a hole in the bottom of the beer, and raised it to his mouth, then tilted his head back slightly.
After only a moment, he cracked the seal by lifting the metal tab. I could see his throat undulating for several seconds. Then he lowered the can from his mouth, and tipped it upside down, and belched loudly. I couldn't believe it! A whole beer-- gone in four seconds flat!
"Alright. That's done. Let's get this party started people! Let's see what makes this one tick!"
I watched him grab the axe from the tray, and now the congregation started to shout a bit. "Do it!" "Yeah!" "Let's go!"
The leader took a step back. He began to intone. "The PDP-11 was invented at the massscheutsets instutite of technology in 1978 by Mary Capucachec and Sally Sedgweick. It soon became the most popular computing platform of it's day.
"Ladies and gents, we have a special one today. This is a real PDP-11 that we have stolen from the University of Los Lobster's computer museum. This is one of the original run of them, that early computer scientists would have used to teach programming. And now we see what it's come to."
He took a step back, and suddenly unleashed a massive devastating axe chop into the side of the metal cabinet. I flinched a little at the sudden BANG! and sparks. The computer had given way a little bit, so he extracted his axe and swung again. BANG! The metal breaking reverberated throughout the warehouse, and I flinched again.
"Death to the CPU!" "Death to the DeeDee-11" "Kill it!" The congregants were chanting fervently, and somehow-- I couldn't explain the appeal then, I can't now-- I found myself swept along a little bit.
After more chopping, a hole was opened up in the computer, revealing it's circuits. Some wires and fragments of boards dangled from where the axe had penetrated beyond the casing.
The leader wiped sweat from his face using the upper part of his arm, and Carl stepped forward. The leader put the axe on the plate, and a hush descended.
"Believers! The holy spirit flows in and through us, and we now know it is electricity. Computers are a hateful mockery of our own circuits, and so they confound us and lead us into darkness. How shall we purify this computer?"
"Electricity!!!" many shouted in unison, while a single voice, a bit late, said "Zap it!"-- at this everyone including the leader laughed.
"That's right... ZAP IT!" The leader replied jovially, to which everyone laughed. The mood was now positively jovial and so I faked a laugh, even though I didn't see what was so funny. It turned out sometime between when I regained control, and now, I had lost it again, and was standing just behind the main circle, now a part of it. "Alright! Bring the spirit cables!"
A woman, dressed all in white, now stepped forward to an area behind the leader. She accessed a panel and soon an electric THUNK was heard of motors engaging. From above, a pair of thick, spiral-wound cables, dangling like serpents, appeared from the sides. I could see they were mounted on tracks, far above, and I realized then that this was no ordinary warehouse but an elaborate religious setup.
Carl appeared and this time heavy rubber gloves were on the silver communion platter. The leader took them and put them on, and then from underneath them donned some very dark glasses.
"Brethren! As always, please stand back. We'll get to zappin' in a moment, but make sure everyone is behind the yellow line, save Dethria and myself."
The woman in white who was operating the panel was wearing thick rubber gloves as well, and she reached up to grab a kit marked IED, which I knew was a kind of birth control-- I couldn't make heads nor tails of the situation.
The two coiled cables reached their final spot in front of the giant computer with an electric buzzing THUNK! The leader reached up, and grabbed the first one.
"This is the negative DC pole, from which electrons flow out. They flow FROM the negative to the positive, which we know is a quirk of the history of electricity, but we can also take as a message to us. The holy spirit works in the negative, as a purging agent. When it fills us, we are purified, the imperfections removed. To be enspirited by the holy ghost is our natural state, then, and only by sin do we push it out."
He took and held the other end with his other hand.
"This is the positive DC pole, from which electrons flow to. It represents Jesus' atonement for our sins. Our sins flow out of us by the purifying force of the holy spirit and into Jesus, who takes them upon himself on the cross."
Without looking down, he continued: "Lord almighty in heaven, perfect genius. We offer this sacrifice of a PDP-11 to you now. May you keep us safe through the purification, as we carry out your will."
He took the ends in hand, and carefully reached into the insides of the PDP-11. He positioned himself carefully, looking around at the gauntlets to make sure his hands were covered. Using my keen observational powers I then noticed that he was wearing boots with very thick rubber soles-- at least an inch.
Once he had the cables positioned how he wanted, still holding them in, he sort of braced his hips together as if he were to make a karate punch, facing the computer. Then he inhaled, and nodded to Dethia.
I saw her lift a plexiglass cover to reveal a big red button, and then press it once.
Immediately, the entire PDP-11 glowed blue, as electricity like lightning arced from it. The Leader's hair stood on end, and I could see him shaking somewhat. All of the arcs fed back into the PDP-11, and I calculated that it must be soaking up tens of millions of volts for it to glow that blue. And then, just as soon as it had begun, perhaps only two seconds later, it stopped.
The leader exhaled. "Amen."
Dethia closed the lid on the big red button, the leader pulled the cables from where he had them positioned inside the computer, and with a hard wrench for each pulled them out. I could see that there was metal slag on them. I shuddered at the magnitude of what I had just witnessed.
After the service (for the last segment, some upbeat music played while a tray was passed around that people put money into, I felt a lot of pressure so I put my last five dollars in) there was coffee in small styrofoam cups and some cheap cookies. I joined right in at this point, because I was pretty sure at that point that I wanted to join this religion. The congreation members seemed not to notice that I was out of place, and I thought either they were programmed to be polite or else they didn't pay close attention to who showed up. Either way I was comofrtable and enjoyed some light conversation with folks over watery coffee.
I noticed that with the lights up and the ceremonies over, everybody's personality seemed to shift a bit. The leader had their hood thrown back and was chatting animatedly with Dethia and another woman that I hadn't noticed during the service, and a few people were even grouped around the PDP-11, sipping and snacking on cookies.
I stood near the cookie table, and a woman came up to me.
"I haven't seen you around before? Are you a visitor?"
"Uh... Yeah." I replied, and started to feel as though some spell was being shaken off. Was I really going to join this religion? What was I thinking?!
"Ah, well, welcome. My name's Nancy. What's yours?"
"Oh, I'm uh, Bruce."
I felt a rush of adrenaline at keeping my cover.
"Nice to meet you Bruce. So... what did you think of the PDP-11? Pretty great, huh?"
Now I wasn't exactly sure how to respond. "Yeah, good stuff. I hate those ones."
Nancy raised an eyebrow. "Ah, I see. Did you... have experience with them?"
She had caught me, without even trying. I started to sweat profusely. I had just wanted to join in with the cookies and coffee, and maybe be part of something bigger than myself, but now I was at risk of blowing my cover and with it the whole operation. I had forgotten why I was here, I had lost the thread, broken the first rule of private eye-ing. I had to come up with a convincing cover, and fast. "No, not personally, I mean not directly, I uh, I just read about them. Big fan."
Nancy swung her head back a little bit. "Fan?"
I realized I had said the wrong thing. "Hate them, I mean. By fan I mean I hate them so much, I'm an... an anti-fan."
"I see. Well Bruce it was nice talking to you." She was cold, and I knew that I, Bruce Wayne, was in trouble. Max. Max Hardshoe was in trouble. This was no time to get confused between my fake and real identities!
"Me too, I have to go."
I set the half eaten cookie and the styrofoam cup (still mostly filled with church coffee: creamy, sugary, sweet, cheap) on the table and quickly walked away, retrieving my briefcase from where I had left it before joining the fellowship time. As I bent down I glanced backwards and could see that the woman, Nancy, had approached and was now talking to the leader and Dethia. She gestured at me with her eyes, and suddenly I realized how I could safe some money.
With the multicolored cups floating in the bath, I walked quickly out of the warehouse, pushing past the cellophane and the plastic strips hanging down, and into the corridor I had originally rounded. I burst into a full-on sprint once I was out of sight, my briefcase flapping wildly as I unbalanced front-carried it.
Side to side like a penguin and suddenly I was wearing a suit with a thin tie and smart tie pin and I felt like a mliion bucks, my shoes were so shiny. I knew I could dance really well and that I was in a music video, I went down on my knes to do a slide and reality came crashing back painfully as I skidded forward face first on the ground, badly twisting my knee. I stood up again but this time could only limp. Nevertheless, fear propelled me like a bullet out of the warehouse, but a slow moving one that has a bad knee, but I made it out anyway.
Once in the light of day, I waded down the nearest street and around a corner so I wouldn't be seen by my pursuers. After that I melted into the city and made my way back to the office.
I was still unwinding from the events of the day when nighttime rolled in. I had been too afraid to turn on my desktop computer, an Apple IIe, so instead I had popped in a VHS tape and was enjoying a funny movie while eating my way through a six pack of cupcakes.
My mind wouldn't let me contemplate whether or not the computer cult would try to track me down and kill me, so instead I needed to occupy it with other thoughts.
When was the newest videogame coming out? But I didn't know anything about videogames any more. What about the latest sports teams? I didn't know anything about that, either. Politics? Yeah, right! The last time I had read a newspaper was years ago, and that had been just for the Funnies.
So my mind did, after all, wander. Not to whether or not I now had a death warrant, but instead I let myself ponder what I would tell the woman when I called her tomorrow.
It would be hard for her to learn that her husband was having an affair, but also part of a cult that murdered old computers. I tried to imagine what it would be like if Sanj didn't like computers; the thought made me instantly sad. At the same time... I had thought about joining the cult, myself-- even if for only a minute or two. What did that say about me?
The movie I had on was one called CASABLANCA. It was about a man named Humphrey and his girlfriend, Caroline. Humphrey had a big gambling debt at a fancy casino and in the end, he had to leave the island of CASABLANCA because they had a law that banished very bad gamblers— and he was one. But Caroline couldn't come with him, because she was on a winning streak. At the end he said, "Here's Lookin' At You, Kid" and boarded a plane with his suitcase full of casino chips (the twist was, he was not really a bad gambler, but an expert one that could make it seem like he was losing when really he was winning, and if Caroline had have left her winning streak she would have actually been a lot richer to marry Humphrey.) It was really sad.
I fell asleep on his chair and the last thing I remember was the cupcake I was eating dropping from my sleeping hand down to the floor, smearing chocolate on my shirt on the way.
When I awoke it was dark unusually quiet outside my window. No cars. My back was incredibly sore and my left leg was numb from being propped on the desk. I realized it must be very late.
I was awake but drowsy, and for a long time I just sat contemplating whether I should or could fall back asleep, or if I should get up and try to walk home. Finally I managed to put my legs on the floor and then I just continued the motion and laid my arms down on my desk where my feet had just been and put my head on my arms and closed my eyes.
My back was very sore. I wondered what time it was. I fell back asleep.
I woke up again. This time I inhaled and let out a little grunt. I wondered what time it was and how long my last nap had been.
I somehow managed to sit up. I opened his briefcase and took out my cell phone and tapped it. It lit up impossibly bright in the dark room and said 4:18. I took a bite of the hoagie before I remembered it was laced with LSD. I remembered in time not to swallow but decided to anyway because I was too tired to find somewhere to spit it out.
This time there was no effect, or so I thought, but I suddenly had the distinct impression that time had spiraled in on itself, so that 4:18 was further from midnight but no closer to the dawn, and that this night would only become later and later into eternity.
I decided I should go home, and as I stood up I felt extremely tall, and my patent leather brown shoes, the kind I had never owned but had seen on television and movies set in the 60s, leered miles beneath me. I picked up my briefcase, but it was still open, and what was left of the hoagie tumbled down. I continued to the door, and I knew somehow that the top of the door frame would hit me in the shins, because I was so impossibly tall right now.
I couldn't explain to myself how I was able to pass through the door, except that when I reached down to the doorknob, my arm dropped impossibly low, down so that it was near my feet, and I had grown even taller, and when I opened the door a kind of reverse light spun out like a madhouse mirror, and I was through, into the stairwell.
I descended the staircase very, very slowly.
By the time I reached the bottom, I felt I had descended one hundred floors, as if each floor I descended was reflected onto itself in a circular chamber of mirrors, but as I approached the door to the street I was less tall, and so just ducked down low to exit the door.
On the street I was somewhat normal height again and I turned to the right and walked toward my home, 10 blocks away, into the night.
I awoke and I didn't remember making it home, I only remembered the stairwell leading to my third-storey office, and the red, talking salamander whose words I could not understand, but whose tongue was so soft, cheruby and delightful as it made them. It had explained to me that the computer cult was ... something. But I couldn't remember what.
I fell back asleep to the noise of traffic out on the street, people laughing and playing gaily in the day.
I got into the office about 5:30 in the afternoon, not a terrible time. My briefcase laid open by the door, and I reached down and carefully picked up the hoagie and threw it in the trash bin, then collected my notebook and pens that had fallen out of the case along with my phone. I checked my phone quickly and it wasn't broken.
My neighbour from downstairs, a personal manager of some kind, came up and asked in an accusatory tone if I knew who left the front door wide open all night. I shook my head and said I didn't know, but there were only three tenants and the main floor one was just filled with filing boxes (you could see from the glass window in the door) and it's owner never showed up, so of course it had been me. She left in a huff of disbelieving annoyance: "Well I hope whoever it was will rememeber next time. Or I guess we have a burgler and should call the police." "Oh, um, no don't call the police, I'll just investigate it myself." I thought this last was pretty good especially.
I sat in my chair, and on my phone I thumbed the woman. I knew I had to let her know today-- she deserved that. Absent-mindedly I thought it was a bit weird I hadn't seen Sanj at all last night or this morning, but thought she must have just went to work without wanting to wake me-- no texts from her, either, which was out of character. I felt guilty that I hadn't texted her the night before to explain where I was. She must have been worried sick! Except of course, no texts, so I guessed she wasn't.
The phone was ringing the other end for the woman so I put it to my ear. After about 10 rings I heard a meek, "Hello? Who is this?"
"Hello, um, Lady, Missus. This is Max Hardshoe, private eye. You had hired me to look into your husband and find out if he was part of some kind of cult."
"Oh, right. Wait? No. What are you talking about?"
"I think if you can come in it will be best, better than if I try to explain over the phone. I can answer any questions you may have."
There was a pause. "I'm just home from work, and I just poured myself a huge Balki B I'm looking to find the bottom of. Can I come in tomorrow?"
I thought of my sales class, about the "closer", where you add a bit of pressure to the end of the deal to get it done. Immediately I understood instinctively that this was that time. "Ma'am, I think we should talk sooner than later."
Another long pause. A sigh. "Fine, sure, I can see you're right. Okay. I'll be there in a half hour, is that alright?"
"I'll be here. See you then."
"See you then." She hung up.
She arrived in more like 20 minutes.
"Please have a seat."
She sat down in the chair across from me. I stood up and faced the window behind my desk, which opened onto an alley. It was rush-hour now, and there were people shouting incoherently, but it sounded work-related.
"Last night, I followed your husband from a cafe where he was with a woman." I had my notebook in hand, opened to where I had made notes. I had written down two things, but the writing was mostly illegible. Still, I could remember. "They were talking animatedly. When they left, I followed them. Miss, uh, Miss."
"Violinia. My name is Adolfa Violinia."
"Right, uh, can I call you miss V.?"
"Call me Miss Violinia."
"Sure, uh, miss. So. I'll cut to the chase. Your husband and the woman he was with went to a warehouse."
"Oh, no." Her voice dropped suddenly in tone. She must have been worried about warehouse sex.
"Yes. I was thinking that too: but it wasn't that."
"Miss Vionia, inside the warehouse, I observed your husband and the woman participate in a ritiualistic computer murder carried out by a cult, and afterwards there was coffee, cookies, and fellowship."
"A murder!? Oh, my god. Oh, god... Charlie..."
"It was a..." I flipped to my notes, even though I couldn't read them-- I was just going from memory but wanted to look like I knew for sure. "A PDP-11."
"Wait, what? Oh, Charlie."
"Madam. I need to ask you some questions. Your life may be in danger. Do you own any compute... wait!"
"Where is it!" I paused for a moment, thinking furiously. "Madam, we have to get out of here, now!"
Instantly I ran around my desk and went to the door and opened it. They've been here! Sometime today! "I'll explain on the way!"
"What, oh-- okay." She seemed stunned and disoriented. She grabber her purse that she had set on the desk and followed me out the door and down the stairs.
In the stairwell as we were hastily descending I asked her: "Do you have a car?"
"No, no I just walked over. Who are we running from?"
"Can you drive it fast. Oh, sorry. You don't have one."
"Yeah I don't have a car, I walked over."
"Okay." My mind was racing now, trying to find an affordable transportation option. "We'll have to take the bus."
As we reached the bottom landing I gestured for her to stay a bit out of sight. I went to the front door and peered outside. "The coast is clear. Let's go!"
We ran out into the street and casually fast-walked twenty or so steps to the bus bench. "Okay. We can wait here. The bus shouldn't be more than about 10 or 15 minutes."
I sat on the bench. "We should try to look casual. Do you have a disguise?"
"No, no. Wait what?"
"That's ok, I don't either. Just try to act natural, like you're waiting for the bus."
She sat down next to me. We waited for the bus.
In a minute or so, the woman finally spoke up: "I need to know what's going on. I need to understand. What's Charlie into?" She was visibly shaking.
I didn't reply but made a chopping motion with my hand. "Zhpp! Pretend you don't know me. I'll explain later." I whispered without looking at her.
We sat for a minute more, and the woman began to shake more and more violently. Finally some sniffles came, inhaled in short breaths, and tears started to run in steady lines from the bottoms of her eyes, drenching out her mascara. She raised her right hand slowly to her face and wiped her eyes gracefully with her middle two fingers, and when she did I could see she was wearing some nice silver bracelets on her arm.
"I... I have to know..." she was choking back tears.
I paused. It wasn't right to keep her in this state. This was no way to treat somebody. I would need a plan B for affordable transportation.
"Okay let's walk. Before we do-- are you carrying a laptop?"
"I don't under..."
"Are you carrying a laptop!" I whispered at her loudly, making the karate chop motion again with my hand.
"No, no. But I don't..."
I stood up. "Okay. I'm sorry. I'm just trying to protect you. Us. Please follow me, and act casual."
In all of the on-line manuals I had read about sleuthing and general things like that, the number one rule to not being noticed was to just relax and pretend like nothing was happening. I was pretty good at that myself, but getting the woman calmed down was going to be hard. I couldn't leave her in suspense, otherwise it wouldn't be long until everybody walking by noticed the crying woman and wondered what was up. I hoped that by walking and talking we could blend in better.
I continued away from the office and from the bus stop, not sure of my final destination-- if any. This wasn't how I would walk home, at any rate.
"Madam. Yesterday, I found your husband in a cafe eating lunch with another woman. After that, they left and went to a warehouse where I observed and made notes about a ritualistic murder of a large computer. There was coffee and fellowship after, but I had to leave when I was found out by the cult members for participating in coffee time. I made it back to my office, safely I thought, but this morning I noticed my computer was missing. Also, I was high on acid the whole time, but it just made me more aware somehow. It was from a hoagie."
I started to think about my Apple IIe and how much I loved to play games on it. As I did I remembered it was sitting on my desk at home, well, at my parent's home. I realized that I wasn't 100% sure that the computer was on my work desk; it might have just been that it was on the small desk my parents kept in the kitchen when I was young.
There were too many clues coming all at once that I was starting to have a hard time keeping track of it all. Damnit! I needed to put this together: was my computer ever even at the office, or was it just at home with my parents? I remembered playing Lunar Landar but I wasn't sure when! Was it recently, or just when I was 10 years old?
I touched my fist to my forehead. What complicated things even more, was that I could remember my mom selling the computer when I was a teenager— I had been so angry even though I never played with it. So if she sold it, it could be anywhere regardless of how I remembered it.
The woman must have noticed me deep in thought about this. Her concern was genuine when she asked, "is everything alright?"
"Yes, yes. I'm sorry. I'm just trying to piece together whether or not the enemies (per se) are not going to be in the stairwell, or riding an electric bike, or scooter, or whatnot."
"Oh. I see."
In another moment we came to a narrow laneway between two old brick buildings. "Follow me." I gestured into it.
"I'm not comfortable..."
"Listen. If they are scooting, they will be on us any minute now. Our only chance is to take as many right-angled turns as we can to confuse them, and also those turns are hard to make on a scooter."
The woman paused for a moment before following, looking around and making a hard descision under peer pressure.
I pleaded with her, my palms outstretched: "Please. We haven't much time."
I was frustrated but my professionalism did not let that frustration show. "Okay. We'll stick to the street. If they come up on us with e-scooters we may need to fight. Go for their balls, this is life or death."
"Ok." She followed me briskly as we continued down the street.
She seemed unhappy about something. In another moment she stopped walking. "Wait."
"I don't... feel right. Something's off. Explain to me again what my husband was doing?"
"He was having an affair at a coffee shop, and afterwards they went to a ritualistic computer-murder."
"Okay that last part does not make any sense. What does that mean? They deleted a hard drive? I don't understand."
"You had to be there, I guess. Okay. Imagine a church service. Like a Christian church, an Evangelical one. Now imagine there is a big computer in the middle of the service, and also that it's taking place in a warehouse."
"Uh huh." She was vaguely closing her eyes. They were now totally exposed on the sidewalk without any insurance.
"There is a short sermon. Then this woman in robes presses a button and some electrical cords come in. They pray, and then zap it with high voltage. But not before chopping it up with an axe a bit."
"The computer is dead, melted. The people have cookies and fellowship. That's when I had to run away."
The woman opened her eyes and stared at me for a bit. "Okay. Where did you say this warehouse was."
"The warehouse is on Brick and 8th."
"Down by the river district."
"Yes. I can't take you there, it's too dangerous, but I can show you on a map."
"No, no. That won't be necessary." I could tell she was deciding something, but I couldn't guess what.
After a pause she continued: "Okay look. I don't know what your game is, when you told me my husband was with another woman I was devastated. But I know you're lying. I put a tracker on my husbands phone. He was away from his office yesterday at lunch but he did not go anywhere near the rivers district.
"I'm turning around and walking back the other way. You can jerk around someone else." By now I could she was fuming mad.
As she walked away I tried to stop her. "Wait! I'm telling the truth. Something must be wrong with your GPS app. You have to believe me. Look. I'll prove it to you. "
She whirled about, her black coat overdoing it a bit too much to be realistic, as her cold eyes deadlocked mine: "Okay, how."
"I'll describe what your husband was wearing."
"Okay, that's a start. What was he wearing."
"He was wearing a powder-blue suit and a frilly white shirt. He had a small yellow ribbon tied into his goatee."
"What? My husband doesn't dress like that— ever! And he doesn't even have a beard."
"It must be a disguise!"
"There's no disguise!"
"There must be! I'm telling the truth!"
"Okay. Mr. Hardshoe. Thank you for investigating my husband. I now know he is having an affair. He went to someone's house at lunch yesterday and when I asked him he said he ate at his desk."
"No, he went and participated..."
"Thank you, Mr. Hardshoe. You've been a good help. I have all the information I need."
"I think you don't really..."
"I'll be leaving now."
"Please don't contact me again."
"Are you sure?"
"O... Ok. You have my card."
My first case... solved! Not only that, my first client... happy!
I was still a bit confused but her sudden change of heart but she must have finally realized I was telling the truth, and had really figured out what really happened-- a real private eye is not just some cheap phone app!
I put my feet up on my desk again and opened my drawer where I kept the peanut M&Ms. I opened a fresh package and scarfed them down, draining them directly into my mouth where I chewed them.
There were still some unanswered questions about the investigation and I was worried the cult might come to kill me, but as long as the customer was happy, I could call it "case closed" and move on.
It was only my first succes of what I hoped would be many, but it felt huge. Things were looking up.