I was in the office working late one hot July evening. I looked over at the Vargas calendar girl hanging on the wall near my desk. Her name was Marsha, and the fan, still running this late in its futile attempt to cool the place down, only managed to make the pages of the calendar flutter like a clipped parakeet cornered by a cat. In the shadowy room, with the lamp on my desk as the only source of light, and smoky trails from my pipe rising like swamp gas in twilight, I could almost manage to see Marsha wiggle her hips at me. The air was so humid, drops of sweat collected onto my desk in a puddle. "Glum, she looks", I thought. "No..." I changed my mind. "More like a sultry pout".
Suddenly the knob on the office door rattled. I looked over at the glass window in the door and thought briefly of how I had been so proud watching those letters being painted on three years ago. 'B. S. Clueless, Pte. Inv.' they read and I wondered how I could possibly have deluded myself back then, imagining that being a Private Investigator would be full of excitement and romance. Yeah, right. Nothing but following drunks and trailing bankrupt gamblers around into bars and pawn shops. Some romance.
But there. Behind the glass. I could see the figure of a woman who could put the calendar Marsha into a nun's habit and not draw an ounce of regret from me. She looked as though she were desperately trying to find a way in, hoping against hope that someone was here to save her. "I would have to be her man," I thought.
I walked over and opened the door and she stumbled across the threshold. "Can I help you?" I said.
"Mr. Clueless! You've got to..." she began in a high, excited voice, then looked around, puzzled. "Funny; the inside of this room is darker than the outside hall", she said.
"Yes", I thought to myself, "In my own house too there was once a clothes closet that was darker than the whole rest of the house."
But I could see she was in a frazzled state. "Calm down, Ma'am," I said. "And call me Jake." She looked at the initials on the door in bewilderment. "Don't be confused. I'm the self-same private investigaor named on the door. The initials B.S. stand for Blarney Stone, but I picked a different first name for myself when I was child."
I put my hand on her shoulder and showed her over to a chair. "Sit here, won't you? -- and can I get you a drink?" I pulled out a bottle of cheap whiskey and a shot glass from my desk. She nodded, sat back and crossed her legs. I noticed that her nylons had run, and as I handed her the glass she drank the whiskey down in one quick gulp. She left dark red lipstick stains on the glass, and as she put her purse on the desk my quick eye noticed an envelope sticking halfway out. The elegantly engraved invitation had been hastily pushed back in so that it was wrinkled and torn -- not the look of an eagerly awaited invitation. I suspected she had been to one party too many lately.
"Now tell me your name and let's find out what could put a fine society woman like yourself in such a bother," I said with as much suaveness as I could muster.
She bagan slowly. "My name is Suzy P. Fancy. You may have read about my family some time ago in the papers. I was pretty young back then and on vacation here in the States. My family had gotten involved in some kind of cult religion with a great lyin' leader who was simply beastly. He had wild hair and a mangy beard completely surrounding his face and he grew his nails long and sharp something fierce. He was a real freak of nature -- not tame at all. His name -- as long as I'm on the subject -- was, as I recall, something Arabic or Turkish."
"Delightful! Simply delightful", I interrupted as it now struck me who this woman was. "Imagine my pleasure at having the creator of the most sought-after wrinkle cream of the decade sitting right here in my office. May I compliment you, ma'am, on your very youthful appearance?"
"I try," she said demurly, and continued her story. "Anyway, as you probably read in the papers, the whole family, including some of my cousins, had some kind of clandestine meeting to discuss important cult matters -- Halley's comet, or the coloured rings of Saturn or some such -- I don't remember, really. That was the day of the great crash of '39 and they disappeared from London. Their bodies were never found and it was assumed they had all died."
She went on. "I was crushed, obviously, but I struggled to maintain my sanity, and soon I managed to get in on the ground floor of a new holographic 3-D imaging process (I had seen a splendid example in a picture frame hanging in my cousin's house while going through his belongings after the funeral. The marketing potential of such a thing immediately dawned on me and I made quick tread marks to the nearest venture capitalist). The proceeds from that idea allowed me to develop my 'White Stag' wrinkle cream. I was able to quickly reap a cheap and easy harvest of profit from that endeavor and everything seemed to be running smoothly."
"And then it happened." She glanced about the room as though searching for any hidden listening devices. "My past was dredged up and people started asking me about that cult my family was involved in. Oh, sure, I remember playing along at times back then just to humour my brothers and sister, but I always intended to get out as soon as I could, and when I had the chance to see New York, well, I jumped. But these people hounding me now are making it sound like I really believed it all."
"I have people coming up to me all the time wanting me to write a tell-all book. Some have even suggested I go back and search for my roots to renew my connections with that old cult. I wish they would just leave me alone. Sometimes I feel like I'm fighting a lost battle. What should I do Mr. Clueless?"
"Hmmm...," I muttered, scratching my chin. "It occurs to me that the house on that rotten piece of swamp land my father left me might come in handy here. The swamp is really just a group of small ponds with a great patches of reeds and cattails by the water, but they would make great cover. Here's the key. You go hide out there for a while and I won't let anyone near my cattails -- you'll be safe there. Don't worry."
She looked like she could use some nourishment and I remembered the stash of snacks I had in my desk drawer. I pulled out a box and said, "Here, why don't you take these Cracker Jacks with you to cheer you up? They put prizes inside. It's usually something pretty silly like a little plastic coloured ring or the like, but it's fun to look for it in the box -- brings back fond memories of childhood, don't you think?"
Well, she thanked me and left with the Cracker Jacks. The next day I went to check on her at the swamp, but she was gone, and nobody has heard of her since. I don't know if she drowned in the water there (hard to imagine -- it's not very deep) or made off to another place with a new identity, but I miss her. Not too smart and rather full of herself, I think. But still, she was a dumb, vain woman I always said; a dumb, vain woman.
And yet -- her story has been haunting me and giving me dreams and pictures in my mind, and I am so distraught that it is even affecting my physical health. I've been plagued with at least seven chronic illnesses related to these visions and I must do something to release this tension and stress. Perhaps if I adopt a clever pseudonym -- maybe something sounding similar to my own name -- and write a series of children's stories (properly disguised, of course to protect the real Suzy), I could exorcise these illnesses.
Of course, what if writer's bug bites me and I decide to give up private investigation altogether to become a full time serious writer? I might be plagued with even an eighth chronic ill -- writer's cramp. Still, I must give it a try. As I look down and reflect on my palms, I wonder if I can get out of this silent planning stage, get my courage screwed up to tap letters out onto my typewriter, discard this Marlowe image I've created for myself, and finally rid myself of this problem of pain and stress. What a joy that would be. Maybe I'll surprise myself!