News: September, 2010

My first detective story… thirty years later

Sep 07, 2010

It was Thirty Years Ago Today.

Well, not today, exactly. But sometime thirty years ago I wrote a story called “I For an Eye.”

Even at the tender age of twenty-three, I was already immersed in the books of the three great pioneers of the American crime story: Dashiell Hammett, who virtually invented it; Raymond Chandler, who brought to it brilliant imagery and one of the greatest voices in all of literature; and Ross Macdonald, who added the dimension of modern psychology and the angst that flows through doomed generations.

This story was my tribute to the genre. Set in Biblical times, it’s about a private investigator in the Old City, Jerusalem, hired by a green-eyed femme fatale to find out whether Lucifar was indeed the fallen angel—or had he been pushed?

It actually began life as a column in the student paper at Concordia University and was then reworked in a creative writing class under the poet and anthologist Gary Geddes. Gary liked it enough to recommend it to Steve Luxton, who was putting together an anthology of new English writing from Quebec called Saturday Night at the Forum and after further revision, it was published the following year. It’s corny in places and even I groaned at a few of the puns but it holds up pretty well, I think, because of the passion and affection I had for the genre then (and ever since).

I’ve decided to mark its thirtieth anniversary by posting it here. I hope you enjoy it.

I For an Eye

From “Saturday Night at the Forum,” Quadrant Editions, 1981.

I was living that year in the Old City, on Boulevard of the Babylons, above a knock-kneed saloon called Simeon’s. Boulevard in those days meant only that a few weeds in the middle of the street had not yet been trampled. It was a narrow broken street that ran like a hair through the armpit of Jerusalem, the mean crowded place they called Sheenytown. I’d been living there too long.

My place was caboose to a string of brothels, slaveyards, barracks, a chandler, and a few domestics dealerships. In between the larger buildings were dark doorways like missing teeth that led to dice dens and dance tents and secret cellars where old men puffed genies out of hookahs.

The stone stairway from my room to the street was crumbling in the middle, a pebbly landslide. I went down on my heels. The ruts in the street could swallow you whole. The harlots came a close second. I made my way through it all. The beggars rocking over greasy bowls, the hysterical peddlars, the gamblers with their shell games, the minstrels, the merchants squatting shoulder to shoulder, an early version of the shopping mall. I stopped only to watch a lean bearded man performing with loaves and fish. He got a nice hand.

I stepped over a drunk singing “Corinthia, Corinthia” and through the beaded curtains of Simeon’s. It was the same air they’d started with twenty years ago. No place for deep breathing. A few regulars nodded in recognition, a few others in sleep. I sat at my table and flagged Simeon down to order breakfast. I had spent the night trailing a wife. She met a man, like the husband said she would. My artist had sketches and we had her cold on adultery. But you know the party they give adulteresses in this town. Another marriage on the rocks.

Sim brought a wineskin. He’s a big guy of fifty, with his last twenty years grown around his middle. He had a head like a potato, eyes all around. Luckily, he also has a mouth like one. The adultery case was giving me a bad taste. I gargled. I held the wineskin bunched in my hand until my arms got tired, That’s when I heard a voice say a name. The voice was milk and honey. The name was mine.

I looked up and she looked good. Her clothes and jewellery and unmarked look all said West Mount of Olives. She sank into the chair opposite me and crossed her legs. It was no accident she showed me her ankles. They were nice ankles. Her only other part not censored by veils was her eyes. They made the pendant that hung in her thinking space look cheap. They were as cool and green and deep as the waters of Sachneh. You can drink from that pool as you dive.

She drilled me with those jades awhile, then turned them on the place. I hoped she didn’t look too close. The mustard blocks in the wall were like snowflakes, no two the same size or shape. You could blow away the mortar with a sneeze. Most of the patrons too.

“I don’t usually have to dig this deep to get what I want,” she said.

“What if you had to dig your own gold?”

“Men dig gold. I dig men. And brother, they dig me.”

“Forget all this digging. Spade is the other guy.”

“I’ll keep that in mind if you don’t shape up. Your ad in the Yellowed Pages said, ‘No Job Too Low, No Price Too High’. I need a man to take a case a leper wouldn’t touch. A guy with guts and brains and a wire in between. A guy who can shoot more than his load. A guy willing to tackle—the Lucifer Spill.”

She leaned back and waited for my reaction. It was blank as the best kind of cheque. She didn’t like that. “Don’t you know who Lucifer is—I mean, was?”

I rolled the name around on my tongue. “Lucifer, Lucifer. Not the angel who took the fall a while back?”

He did not fall!” Her words were spaced like lashes at a flogging. One of the many eyes in Sim’s head blinked. She dropped her voice a few feet. “He didn’t fall. He was pushed. And I want you to find out who did it.”

“You’re calling it murder?”

“Wasn’t I speaking plain Hebrew?”

“Who’s been whispering in your ear?”

“A birdie.”

“Describe the bird.”

She plucked one out of the air. “About so big. White.”

“That would make it—listen, have you gone to the guard with this?”

“The guard!” she snorted. “The only thing they can take on the chin is the sauce dribbling out of their falafel. This is big. This is yours—if you want it.”

Maybe I wanted it. Maybe I wanted her. Maybe I wanted to want her.

“Suppose I take the case. I have to know who you are.”

She told me her name. I whistled. Her husband was one of the richest men in the country, controlling most of the shipping out of Haifa. He shipped materials for palaces and slaves to build them. He ran arms and legs in any war that paid. If you spat in the harbour, he would know by the time you wiped your mouth.

“Not bad for who,” I said. “Now let’s get to the whys and hows. What’s your stake in this? Why do you say murder when everyone else says fall? How do you know he didn’t fall? How well did you know him? When did you first meet? Who were his enemies? Who might profit from his death?”

She thought about it a moment. “My business, because it was, I just do, not at all, never, I haven’t a clue, I haven’t a clue.”

“That’s not good enough!” I thundered. “One minute I’m up your ladder, the next I’m down your snake. This thing goes up, way up, to people who aren’t just people. I can’t go up against them blind. I need something from you.”

She stood sharply. From within her robes she withdrew a small hide purse. It was tied at the neck like a chicken. “Go on this,” she said. Coins kissed when it landed.

* * *

Elazar Ben-Hecht was the best reporter on the Dead Sea Scroll. I found him in his cubicle with his sandalled feet up on his desk. He hadn’t been careful walking to work that morning. He filled in a few of the blanks on Lucifer.

“He kinda came out of nowhere into Jehovah’s organization and shot right to the top. Right-hand man. Probable successor. Then he fell on the fourth of Iyar. No witnesses. We never saw the stiff. The guard had it out of there like they were being chased. All we get are the usual press releases. ‘Exemplary record,’ according to senior officials. Other than that, everyone’s come down with lockjaw.”

I thanked Ben-Hecht and wandered down to the Sheenytown precinct. The homicide skipper that year was a Captain Effluvius, a hunk of granite with a jaw that could break your fist. His face was pocked like a peach pit. Not lined, though. Not many thoughts called his forehead home.

“I’m interested in something that went down a couple of months ago.”

“Like what?” he growled.

“Not what, actually. Who. The Lucifer Tumble.”

“Slide, peeper. Walk yourself home.”

But I wasn’t through. I started firing questions. Sharp ones. The fall, the scene, position of the body, cause of death, the examiner’s report. I ended up asking if Jehovah had been questioned.

He took it all calmly. Then he picked up a bell off his desk and rang three long, two short, two long. It must have been a signal of some kind. A matched set of guards showed me the door. I wished they’d opened it first.

* * *

I awoke staring up at a cat. I didn’t know the alley I was in but I’d been in a dozen like it. I sat up. The world didn’t end. All my teeth checked at roll call. I stood and talked it over with my legs and then we were all friends again and they dribbled me out of the mouth of the alley. I had to walk a mile for a camel and agreed to return it to the U-Hump depot in my end of town.

Green Eyes was right. It was a lot of sweat for a fall. Who’d keep a dry eye if Lucifer died? He’d made right-hand man without a minute to lose. Someone somewhere was wearing his footprints. Or maybe his boss Jehovah had been feeling hot breath on his neck. That was the angle I liked. Effluvius wouldn’t cover for small change. Someone was squeezing him for all he was worth. That took grip.

The camel plodded up to Simeon’s. I hitched it next to a two-humper that had a wicked bow lashed to the saddle. I dug in my heels and climbed my stairs, unlocked the door, and got an oil lamp going. It threw a few too many shadows.

“Won’t you sit down?” the man sitting in my chair asked. He had a deep voice, with barracudas swimming in it. His face was shadowed. I started to move in on him but a knife tickled the back of my neck. I sat.

“You have become interested in certain affairs,” the Baritone said. “Affairs beyond your comprehension and concern. We have come here to point”—and here the knife stung my nape—“to point out the error of your ways.”

The knife was still on my nape. It traced a line. I reached behind and grabbed the knife hand and slung its owner to the floor. The Baritone came out of his chair swinging. My jaw isn’t the Captain’s. His fist didn’t break. I went down and his foot came down toward my face, trying to give me one of those perky smart-set noses. The smell of sandalwood filled the air. I caught his foot, twisted, shoved. As he went down, I got up in time to catch the knife boy on my back. I spun him off and dealt him a hand. He folded.

The slam of the door told me the Baritone was ducking out. By the time I slid down the stairs he had mounted the two-humped camel. I leapt into the side of mine. I picked myself up and mounted conventionally. He had a good lead but my single was lighter. We gained. I got so close I could smell his camel’s backfire. I could see the great hind quarters, though they looked more like halves. I could hear the thud of hooves and my camel gasping, stuttering, wheezing. . . he was running out of water. With its reserve hump, his twin had miles left.

The sun was up by the time we plodded back to Simeon’s. Knife Boy had checked out. I sent off some pigeons and soaked in a hot bath while Sim brought breakfast. The Ramjahm Kid arrived just as Sim was leaving.

“Your boid brung da note sayin’ ya wants to see me. And dat’s not all he brung,” he complained, pointing to his soiled fez. The Kid is a little guy who gets around on the skinniest set of bones still in skin. A former camel jockey who’d taken one too many falls, he now dug scraps for me and sold one-of-a-kind curios to pilgrims.

“Find out everything you can on Jehovah, from his shoe size up. His past, his present, his action. And aliases. And a sketch if you can swing it.”

“And maybe I should bring him fer an innerview?”

I promised him fifty shekels, ten times what he usually earned. He was still gaping at me when her pigeon arrived. She would be home all morning. I drank up and caught a camel car west.

* * *

The eunuch guarding her gate stood on a pair of battering rams. Two more were folded across his chest. His neck was just thick enough to hold up his massive shaved head. His features had been sculpted with a club.

I told hm who and what. He showed me his palm. I showed him a card. Another eunuch from the same litter came and took the card up to the house. I was still holding on to it, bent over his shoulder. When we got to the house, he propped me up against the door jamb. I decided to teach him not to play potato-sack with the guests. As he turned back to me I picked my spot on his cheek and hauled one up from the bottom of the well. The arc was science, the smack music, it was symmetry, poetry! It was a look of annoyance that fluttered across his face. A hand that could have palmed a melon lifted my throat two feet off the ground. I went with it. The other hand was about to renovate when she appeared in the doorway.

“Alto! Put him down this instant. You heard me, Alto. Go back to the gate.”

He grunted meekly and started to lumber away.

“Nuts to you,” I told his back.

***

She managed to find her way around the house without a map. We slid across marble, sidestepped servants, swept aside satin and wound up in a sitting room where a wide-eyed Levantine maid was fluffing pillows. I wouldn’t have minded fluffing the maid.

“Let me switch the air-conditioner,” Green Eyes said. She rapped the man sharply with a cane and his palm fronds started moving the air around.

I updated her. “So it looks like you were right about Lucifer getting helped over the side and I say the Samaritan was his boss. You said yesterday you didn’t know Lucifer and I let you say it. Now you’ve got to talk straight.”

“You’re right,” she mewed. “I lied. I’ve always been a liar. But I had to this time. If it came out that Luce and I were—the scandal—my husband is insanely zealous. But I don’t care what he thinks anymore. I want the killer caught.”

It came to this: she and Lucifer had met at a political function some time back. They’d been sneaking it ever since. With her husband away, it got hot between them, so hot they wanted to write their own ticket to someplace warm and romantic, where they could start over with only their dreams of fire, and money skimmed from her husband and Jehovah. They were supposed to leave the night he fell.

“Jehovah must have caught him with his hand in the till,” she sobbed, embracing me. “He killed him, I tell you, Jehovah did, and you’re the only one who can help me. Darling,” she whispered, tightening her hold, “you’ve got to find out. I’d have to know for sure before I could ever give myself to another man.”

She gave swivelly hints what that would be like before she saw me out.

* * *

The Ramjahm Kid showed up at Simeon’s late that night. He was hopping in his skin. “Whaddah customah, dis Jehovah boid!” I put his money on the table. His tongue came out at the sight of it and started to flap. I let it flap close to an hour.

It seemed Jehovah had always been around, under one name or another. And he had more names than a harlot’s phone book: Jehovah. Alias Elohim (or just El); alias Lord (sometimes O Lord), Lord God, God the King; alias Holy One, Merciful One, Exalted One; alias the Almighty, the Creator; alias King of the Universe, God of Israel, Builder of Jerusalem.

I wondered how much the Jerusalem contract had been worth.

He also had hands in temples, prayers, prayer accessories, salvation, redemption, healing, miracles, manna. They said he destroyed towns with fire and later rebuilt them on fat cost-plus contracts. He was everywhere and nowhere. He touched everyone for something, but no one saw him. A recluse. Everything done through second bananas.

So our biggest dead ends were address and description. No one knew precisely where he operated from. Details of his looks were spotty.

Complexion—shimmering. Build—in man’s image, only more so. No known scars or tattoos. An artist friend tried a composite sketch, but came up empty, though several were later hung in the Oriental Galilee.

So I took what I knew to the street. Maybe I’d get an address. Maybe I could get him nervous, smoke him out, if I asked enough questions. Dog chasing chariot. I elbowed my way around the open market awhile. The merchants didn’t know Jehovah, though one invited me to find something similar in the house line. A drunk knew Jehovah, but said they weren’t speaking. A sooty little pop-eyed guy said he was also looking for God and hung onto my sleeve like a pit bull. I had to beat him off.

I left the market and wore out welcomes along Boulevard of the Babylons. I squeezed through smoke-blue dens where dice sounded like chattering teeth. I watched oiled girls dance at HeeBee JeeBee’s. Nothing. Until a beaming woman in her forties stopped me in the street.

“You’re looking for Jehovah?” she cooed. Serenity shone through her, outlining her legs beneath her burnoose. Her smile was dazzling and constant. She handed me a pamphlet. My heart skipped when I read the masthead. The Watchtower. Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Witnesses? What did they have on him? Did it have anything to do with Lucifer?

“We’re all looking for Jehovah,” she said. “You’ll find him when you’re ready.”

My hand went to the blade under my robe. I was as ready as I would ever be.

There was a meeting the next night at the Witnesses’ Centre, the happy lady said. Would I come? Sure. Only I’d get there tonight. I intended to search their offices.

* * *

It was a modest two-storey place next to a seedy bagel bakery on Antioch East. No light showed behind the Phoenician blinds. I forced the door with my dagger and swung a pocket lamp around a room stacked with literature, subscription lists and posters of people kneeling and staring reverently at a column of light. I took out one of my artist’s sketches. I couldn’t make a positive ID but it was close enough to point me toward the second floor.

Upstairs were scribes’ offices where the pamphlets were designed and copied, and a conference room with a table big enough for a banquet. Charts detailed the latest recruitment drive. Next to the conference room was an office with an oversized armchair and desk. A huge black ledger was open on the desk. Names on the left in red ink, names on the right in black. Payoffs? A sucker list? I left the book and examined a map on the wall. Sodom and Gomorrah were circled in fiery red ink. So it had been his gig.

Suddenly the room was brighter. I turned slowly, hand on haft. It was him. The biggest and the brightest. A column of light, vaguely human, pouring into the armchair. The ledger closed by itself.

“I wouldn’t want you to see which side you’re on,” he said. His voice was wide and deep as a quarry.

“I know which side of things I’m on. You’re the one wiping out cities and feeding off scared little people’s superstitions. You’re the one who sends the boys in the long black coats to push prayer to schoolchildren. Not to mention bumping off lieutenants who get a little too ambitious. Did it happen like Green Eyes says? Did you catch him with his mitts in the mash? Not that it matters. You did it, alright. You lured Lucifer out to a lonely place and shoved him over, only you’re going with him. You’re taking the rap!”

If I’d hoped to ruffle his feathers, I’d been wasting my breath.

“Drink?” he said. A decanter appeared and filled itself. And it was not cheap stuff. I tried not to let on I was impressed.

“Maybe you didn’t hear me. You’re going over for the Lucifer Spill.”

“What makes you think I killed Lucifer? What makes you think anyone did?”

“You can pawn that accident story off on the cops or the papers, but you and I both know there’s only so many ways a guy can get dead and Lucifer was a little crafty to slip.”

“What makes you think he’s dead at all?”

“His death, is what.” For the bright guy at the top, he seemed a little dim.

“Did you see the body? Did anyone?” My eyes widened. I remembered what Elazar Ben-Hecht had said about the meat wagon tearing out of there. I asked Jehovah what he meant but he never had a chance to answer. A tremendous explosion on the ground floor rocked the room. Plaster showered out of bookcases as tablets were reduced to aspirin. Jehovah flared angrily. His voice parted my hair and wrapped my robe around me.

Two-bit keyhole croucher. You led them right to me. You sold me out!”

I joined him under the desk. “To who? Who’s out there?” Feet sounded on the stairs. The stink of sulphur came with them.

“Haven’t you guessed yet?” It was her voice, but the milk and honey had soured. Her green eyes now reminded me of rot, corruption, slime and bell peppers. The big eunuch, Alto, stood by her in the doorway, hefting a spear that dripped flame. On her right was a thin feverish neurotic-looking gent dressed in black. His shoes were black and pointy and so was his beard. He kept his eyes trained blazing at the floor. His breath was no picnic.

It was this skinny sad sack Jehovah addressed when he got up from under the desk.

“I gave you everything,” he said in a voice broken by betrayal. “From the day I brought you in, a wet-behind-the-ears punk, I gave you everything. Expense account, company cart. I even let you redecorate. I taught you myself and you were good. Maybe I gave you too much too soon. It’s just that I was proud. You were like a son to me . . . the son I never had. But you had to press me. You had to have it all then and there. You had to have a percentage. If I’d given you one, the others would have smelled blood. They’d have come after me. Didn’t you understand that? It would all have been yours anyway. There was no one I trusted like I trusted you. It would all have been yours . . . someday.”

But I think he knew, even as he said it, that that day had come. Lucifer wanted it now.

The thin man said nothing through the whole soliloquy. Now he just nodded at Alto, who brought the flaming spear into throwing position. But you don’t stay number one as long as Jehovah had without a few tricks. He flared suddenly in a brilliant burst that blinded us and stayed in rings in the blackness behind our eyes. A portion of the bookcase slid away and he fled through a passageway.

Alto, half-blind, put everything into the toss. The spear made it into the passage before the bookcase could close. For a few seconds, nothing happened. Then a ray of light came from the passageway and formed a pool on the floor.

“You’re next, peeper,” my lovely Green Eyes hissed.

Alto lumbered toward me, dagger raised. I buried my foot in his groin. It wasn’t his weak spot. I bounced a few punches off his face. So what? I was thinking out my will when an arrowhead burst through Alto’s chest. He screwed his face up to her before he fell. Only then did I see Effluvius and his men crowding into the room. They must have come about the explosion.

“I’ve got it all tied up in a bow, Captain. I thought before you were covering up a murder but the victim is standing right there and the green-eyed lady is his shill. Lucifer wanted to break away from Jehovah and start his own outfit. What better way than to fake his own death and rebuild on the q.t. Jehovah knew what Lucifer was up to and wanted it quieted up to keep panic out of his own ranks.”

Effluvius motioned two men over to Lucifer but Luce was not about to be taken. He reached into his coat and dashed a vial against the ground. A stinging cloud sent us retching toward the window. When we could see and breathe again, he had vanished. Effluvius and his men sped out to search the grounds. I didn’t think they’d find him.

Green Eyes was slumped in a corner, eyes red, veils torn.

“So your boyfriend didn’t think enough of you to take you along.”

“You have every right to be cruel to me, darling. But I’d have come back to you. When I lied to you and used you, and even when I told Alto to kill you—I think we both know deep down that I loved you. I still love you.” She threw herself into my arms. “Do they have to send me away?”

“I’m afraid so, angel. But the most they can give you is five.”

“Will you wait?”

“C’mere,” I said fondly. Her eyes closed and her face tilted up to get kissed. I reared back and landed my best punch of the case.

Effluvius came back. His men were still searching. She was sleeping peacefully.

“They used me,” I said bitterly. “They made a sap out of me. I led them right to Jehovah, just like they planned.” I knelt beside the pool of light on the floor. “And look what they did to him.”

“Maybe he got away,” Effluvius said gruffly.

“He lost a lot of light.”

“He had a lot to lose.”

Maybe. Maybe Jehovah did get away. Maybe he’ll do what Lucifer wanted to do, rebuild from the bottom, try to get back in the race. Either way, I felt sorry. He’d had a good thing a good long time. Those things are the hardest to lose.

So I went back to Simeon’s and built him a drink and drank it and thought of a girl I knew who was a chorus girl in “Camel Lot.” Maybe I’d look her up. Maybe I’d get the taste out of my mouth. Maybe I’d get out of Sheenytown. Even if just for the night.