Saturday, October 27, 2012
Saturday's Chapter - James Hitchings, The Case of the Syphilitic Sister
Today's chapter is from a new mystery by James Hitchings featuring a a Superheroic Detective Agency
The corridor's smell was not unpleasant, but hinted of unpleasant things; the cleaning-product smell of a hospital or a public bathroom. Lettering on the door read All-American Detectives Ltd. - and underneath, in smaller letters, America's Finest Superheroic Detective Agency - serving Burlington City and the entire United States. Catherine opened the door, half-expecting to find the office shrouded in thick clouds of cigarette smoke, occupied by a defeated-looking man with his feet on the desk and a bottle of whisky in his hand. But the office was bright and cheerful, and the blandly-smiling man at the reception desk did not look like a cynical, wise-cracking gumshoe. He nodded a greeting. Janus the Unknown, Man of a Thousand Faces, rarely spoke first. He gauged the client's age, class and ethnic origin and, in general, adopted a similar accent and vocabulary. He wore no mask. Or rather, he wore no obvious mask. He had subtly altered his facial features, by natural and artificial means, to appear more open and trustworthy. It was hard to tell what age or even what race he was. It was as if he had bleached himself away, creating a blank canvas on which, like a sidewalk artist, he could draw whoever was required.
"I'm Catherine Moore," she said, "I have an appointment for three thirty." The man made a mark in the ledger before him.
"Very good Miss Moore. If you'd care to wait, someone will see you in a few minutes." His tones were soothing and reassuring, like those of a doctor - or, perhaps more relevant to the agency's business, an undertaker. She sat down on the unoccupied leather couch. She sank into it, and she had a momentary vision of finding other clients hidden in the cushions. A glass coffee table was covered in current affairs magazines; Spicy Detective Stories, Weird Mysteries and the like. She read for a while about the Cult of Ra and the Jack of Spades murders, until another voice said,
"Miss Moore, we're ready to see you now." Like the unremarkable man at the desk, the new figure wore no brightly-coloured leotard. Indeed, apart from a domino mask which matched his suit, he could almost have been on his way to church, or a job on Madison Avenue. His voice was neither booming nor sinister.
The guiding principle of the agency was that there was no boss and no underlings. Everyone fought the villain's henchmen, everyone cleaned the desks. Yet not everyone could do the job of manning the office. It was no good expecting a grieving widow or the parents of a missing child to feel safe in the presence of Doctor Death or The Night-Witch.
"I'm the Green Dragon," he said, in the same professional tones with which Janus had greeted her. "I'll be your liaison with our agency." She realised his suit was very dark green rather than black.
"So...what, you breathe fire?"
"Metaphorically speaking," the man said smoothly, opening the door to a small interview room. "I use an adapted pair of pistols, which work in a similar fashion to a flame-thrower. They can also be used to project knockout gas, electricity, and a few other things. But please, sit down. Now, what can we help you with?"
"It's about my sister Penny." The Green Dragon gave a wordless, sympathetic murmur. She took a deep breath. "Well, she died a few months ago."
"I see." His tone betrayed no surprise. Perhaps, she thought, there was none to betray. Perhaps he would have been surprised to hear she was alive and well.
"She...she was shot by the police."
"Oh. I see. But if you feel there was an injustice, I have to warn you that a lawyer would be more likely-"
"No, that wasn't the injustice," she interrupted. "She got into an argument over change with a bus driver. She had a kitchen knife that she'd bought and she stabbed him to death. She was ranting, threatening the police. They told her to put the knife down but she wouldn't. I think they call it 'suicide by cop' don't they?"
"Did your sister have any conditions that might have-"
"It turned out she was in the terminal phase of a particularly virulent strain of syphilis. She would have been dead in a few months even if the police hadn't shot her. The rage was part of it too. I'm told that victims of most forms of syphilis just get forgetful, like old people."
"What would our agency be aiming to uncover?"
"I want you to find out how she got the disease."
"I take it she had no beau that you knew of?"
"That's not what I meant. Penny wasn't the kind to sleep around. If she had a disease like that, she was raped."
"Ma'am, there's no reason to think your sister was, uh, intimately involved with more than one person, or on short acquaintance,"
"You don't-" She seemed to be struggling to stop herself shouting. "With all due respect, you don't know my sister."
Then why does this all seem so damn familiar? Many of the Green Dragon's best cracks were delivered only in his own mind.
"Miss Moore, I must caution you that our agency cannot be party to any vigilante activity. Our legal position is already shaky. The police officially take the view that what we do is illegal under the Criminal Vigilantism Act, but don't prosecute. We can try and find this fellow, but the most we can do after that is present a case to the police, if he's guilty of a crime."
Catherine lit a cigarette. It forced her to speak from the side of her mouth, like a gangster in a film.
"I'm not going to stab him. She was the crazy one remember?"
"I don't think you're crazy Miss Moore. But I think you might be making a mistake. I also have to warn you that we charge on a per hour basis."
"What do you mean by that?"
"More plainly, if we can't find anything, or if we find something that isn't what you thought we'd find, you still have to pay us."
"Truth, justice and the American way," Catherine muttered.
A few days later Catherine found herself in another room in the agency. The Green Dragon was still there. She supposed that, in reality, he went home at night, but it was hard not to think of him as attached to the office, perhaps put away in a drawer at five o'clock, or perhaps simply standing in the darkness until needed. In a sense she was right. Only Chester Mason ever walked through the hidden, basement-level door to the agency, and while Chester ate dinner or listened to the radio the Green Dragon was stored in a locker. He found it easier not to speculate on which one was the invention. The room was almost identical save that it was larger, to accommodate herself, the Green Dragon, and a young woman who introduced herself to Catherine as Princess Iron Fan. Catherine noted that everyone she had met at the agency was around the same age, late twenties or early thirties. She wondered what happened to them when they got old.
"Miss Moore," said the Princess, "we have a few questions about what happened to your sister's body. Now, you've said that most of your family live in Nebraska. Was Penny buried there, or here?"
"Was an autopsy performed?"
"No. Mom and Dad were against it. The police could've got a court order to do it anyway, but it was obvious enough what was wrong with her."
"I see. I ask because it could tell us whether she was...forgive me, but if she was the victim of an assault. It might even give us an approximate time. How likely is it that your parents would consent to disinterment-"
"Not a chance."
"I see. And how do you feel about it?"
"I just want the truth," Catherine said flatly.
I wonder if you'll still want it when we show it to you the Green Dragon thought. A baby you fall in love with when you see it. The truth you fall in love with until you see it.
"All right. Well, that being so, we have a proposal to discuss with you."
The delivery van was mis-named, having come to the graveyard to take, not give. Inside, The Kabbalist wore his mask and costume. The others wore the identical masks and armour of the Kabbalist's sidekicks, the Golems. There was some legal protection in doing so. If it all went wrong, the agency might be fined rather than the individuals accused of a crime. It also helped them to deal with the often unpleasant nature of the job. At the end of a working day, did you want to tell yourself that you had fought evil as the Kabbalist, or helped steal a corpse as Eugene Nash? Of course everyone had a set of civilian clothes ready. They might have to disappear quickly, or be taken to jail.
In fact the Golems did not exist. That is, they did not exist even to the extent that the Kabbalist existed. None of the sidekicks did. It was rather like a small theatre company. Everyone had their main role, but everyone also played minor roles as required. Princess Iron Fan took the identity of the Green Dragon's sidekick, the Green Fairy, when required. The others, especially Janus, performed similar duties. It was a good way of appearing to have more manpower than they really did. There was no possibility of the child sidekick beloved of popular culture. The law largely took the view that if grown men and women wanted to run around in costumes fighting crooks, then it was their funeral. But child endangerment was another matter. The whole thing reminded Eugene of a circus: what the public saw and what was really going on were two different things.
They parked the van quietly, and took out their shovels. The cemetery's high wall and locked gates were designed to keep out kids, not determined adults with a near-professional knowledge of burglary. They crept along a path lined with trees, towering palms which, appropriately, were mostly dead.
"Gee, everybody's quiet here tonight," whispered one of the Golems. It was Chester.
"You spend the whole ride over thinking that up?" the Kabbalist replied.
"No, I spent the whole ride over hoping I don't have to pee."
"No, you spent the whole ride over hoping nobody noticed you putting your Green Dragon mask on under your Golem mask."
"Yeah, well...your Mom wears jocks," Chester whispered sulkily.
"Last time we were out you claimed to have had intercourse with my Mom, which by the way is no insult to me on account of I ain't gotta Oedipus Complex or a Madonna-Whore Complex, so really her choice of underwear reflects on you more than me doesn't it Chester?"
"Don't use his secret ID you idiot," hissed another Golem, who preferred to wear the flying helmet and jet-pack of the Rocket Ranger.
"Who's gonna hear?" it was the Kabbalist's turn to sound sulky. "Anyway it should be just about...shit." They stopped still. Three figures were digging up a grave.
"Jesus Christ. What...is that the same one we came for?"
"Yeah, I think so. Shit, what do you wanna do?"
"OK. Put down the shovels first, and pretend we came to arrest them."
"Yeah, good idea." They followed the Rocket Ranger's instructions.
"All right - Kabbalist, you good to go?"
"Sure." The Kabbalist's voice changed. It became deeper, richer yet more menacing, like the paws of a panther. "Desecrators of graves. Robbers of the dead," he said, in the manner of one listing the names of diseases or poisonous snakes. His voice was soft, but clear, and the three figures looked around sharply. He strode towards them. His robe gave him the appearance of gliding over the ground. "You thought yourselves unseen and unheard, here in this place of rest. But justice never sleeps, and there is no wickedness which is hidden from...the Kabbalist!" The Golems stood behind him, as if the earth itself had risen up against its violators. One of the three criminals moaned, and the detectives smelled urine. The thug dropped to his knees, babbling a mixture of alibi and prayer.
"Stand up you dummy," said one of the crooks, a bald and leanly-muscled fellow. "They're just men in costumes."
"Just men in costumes," the Kabbalist laughed. He made it sound like the most idiotic thing ever uttered, the kind of thing the guy in horror comics who doesn't believe in ghosts would say before getting killed. "Indeed they are less than men, lacking wills and souls. Aleph! Gimel! Strike down this fool!" The criminal stood like a rabbit in headlights while the Golems approached. At last he made a decision. He punched Chester in the stomach - and howled like a cat as his fist struck armor. There was a sinister snick as the third man drew a flick-knife.
"Put that away you idiot." The bald criminal held his bloodied right hand with his left. He stepped away from the other two, and spoke in a lower voice. "Listen, you got us on vandalism at the most. You could try and beat the story outta me, but you know how it is - I got hired by a guy who got hired by a guy who got hired by a guy. I ain't even gonna give you the first guy's name, and I think you know that. Now you could take us down the station, but I'm lookin' at your shovels over there, and I don't think you want that. So how about this: we get outta here, I don't say nothin' about no shovels, you get whatever you came for, and we call it even?"
"Deal," the Kabbalist whispered, and then in a louder voice, "Begone evildoers!" He raised his hands, as if to call down lightning upon them.
"Oh God, run! He's gonna kill us all!" the bald grave-robber suited actions to words, and his two companions followed.