“Harold Busssen, private eye, with three s’s is my name: keep it to yourself if you know what’s good for you.”
She was seated across the wooden desk from him taking note of his strange, but not unpleasant look; the plain brown overcoat he wore, his fedora hat, the rotary phone he had on his desk- which she assumed no longer worked. She had never actually used one, but really wanted to try it at least once before leaving this dusty office with the books on the shelf behind him, the lack of a computer, or a cell phone evidently, in fact, the lack of anything that might remind one that they were anywhere near the twenty-first century. Before she had a chance to think about it, she had to ask.
“Does it work?”
“What?” he replied, obviously annoyed. “Does what work?”
“Your rotary phone. Does it work?”
“Yes, it works. What a strange question. I thought you were here about your sister or something.”
“I never knew anyone who had a rotary phone before. I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay. Now, what can I do for you?”
But she had turned away from him and was doing something with her cell phone. After a few seconds, the rotary phone on the desk rang with a hollow, unpleasant choking buzz, like the phone was on its last few days of life.
The detective held up one finger and said, “‘Scuse me a moment” and picked up the receiver.
“Hello, this is Busssman, with three s’s.”
“Hello,” said the woman’s voice. “It’s just me.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t recognize the voice.”
“Me. You don’t know me yet. I just wanted to see it actually work.”
Then he realized the woman on the phone and the one sitting across from him was actually the same person. He placed the receiver back in its cradle, leaned back in his chair, and placed his hands behind his head, his fedora now covering his eyes. He seemed to the woman to be trying to doze off for a second or two. She said nothing for a bit but watched the strange man as she gathered her thoughts.
“Actually,” she said. “I’m here to see about a job.”
She waited and watched as he stared into his hat, occasionally twitching his nose.
“I don’t remember advertising for any job,” he said, pulling forward and with a quick flip of his head forcing the hat back onto his head.
“What kind of a job was it you were looking for, anyway?”
“Detective assistant,” she said.
“So, where did you hear about this so-called job?” he asked, reaching for a pipe he kept on a holder on the corner of his desk: which he took and placed between his lips, without lighting.
“Actually, I just thought of it.”
“You just thought that I might be looking for an assistant detective? That’s a little ridiculous, isn’t it?”
“That’s what I thought the first time,” she said. “But then it happened again.”
“Well, have you had any experience in this kind of work?”
“To be honest,” she said, “I’m not sure what all you do here. I just know that I was supposed to come in here to meet you, and I just thought I should ask you for a job.”
“I see,” he paused. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Melissa, Melissa Smith, with two s’s, not three.” She smiled.
“Well, Melissa Smith, two s’s, and this first question is going to surprise you, have you ever seen a talking frog?”
“Once, yes, but I may have imagined it. Why the heck are you asking such a stupid question as that?”
“I have my reasons. Just relax, you came here, remember?”
“What else might qualify you for this job of your own creation?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what are you doing now? Are you working somewhere?” He played with the pipe, placing it first between his lips, and, using his teeth, causing it to bounce up and down, as a child might.
“Please don’t do that,” Melissa said, after a few seconds. “It’s rather annoying. “And, yes, I am working now. I’m an attorney at one of the largest law firms in the city.”
“An attorney?! Well, why work here? The very most you’ll get from me is minimum wage, and probably not that. No benefits, no nothing.”
“Nevertheless,” she said. “Could I take a look at that hat of yours… and the pipe, the pipe too? I just want to look at them for a minute.”
“They are both ridiculous, you know?” she continued.” I don’t know why you have them. I think I’m going to just hold them while we are having this interview.”
“Well, that’s just odd, but so be it.”
“Look at you,” she continued. “You have very nice eyes: why hide them with this stupid hat?And, come on, a pipe…you don’t even smoke.”
“It gives me something to do with my hands. But, fair enough. Let’s get down to business. Why are you here really?”
“I’m not really sure. I think I followed someone here. It’s a little vague. And a little scary to me.”
“Tell me about it: I think you should,” he said, studying her features. She was a dark- haired woman about his own age, twenty five or so, attractive, obviously smart, a little fidgety, and with an air of distrust about her. But she was a lawyer, so probably expected.
“This is going to sound very strange, but I don’t care.”
“Yes, go on. I’ve heard many strange stories: more than you might imagine.”
“Well, here it is. I followed the Blue Man into your office. I came in here thinking he might be here.”
“Blue Man?” he questioned.
“Yes, the Blue Man. The man I saw as a child. My father, I think.“It was a dream from when I was a teenager. I saw him, or something that looked like him come through your door and into this room.”
“He opened my door and came into this room?”
“Not exactly, I think he just came in through the door. Like a ghost, I guess. I’m not sure. It sounds ridiculous I know. But I know what I saw.”
“And this happened just now?” he asked.
“No, I’m not sure when it happened. I just now decided to look into it.”
“Could you elaborate a little on this for me? Nothing you are saying is really making much sense to me.”
She began to fidget like there was something inside her head, some little beast, some crawling thing with tiny claws.
“It hurts to talk about it.” And it is so far away, she wanted to say, something afloat out in the ocean whitecaps in the past. Nobody knows; nobody else spoke, It was all just accepted as part of some plan, by someone, somewhere, written in a book that changes with each reading. “Something happened to me when I was a child. I never got over it. It has always haunted me. I don’t know what to do about it.”
She stopped and, still holding the hat and the pipe, put her hands in her lap, appearing suddenly as a child, like someone transported into her own girlhood, returning to herself, the real person, the one she somehow, for reasons no one explained, had to leave behind.
“Can I have my hat back?”
“Your hat? Why is that so important to you? It makes me think you are just mocking me.”
“It helps me keep things in perspective,” he said, with a grin.
“You’re an idiot. You should just shut up and let me finish.”
“Sorry. Sometimes I just….” he trailed off, forgetting suddenly his point. She knew he immediately regretted speaking. She threw the hat and the pipe at his head, missing him but hitting the small window behind him.
Sometimes, one needs to keep the way clear, with no words or even thoughts to interrupt. Sometimes, the seas are too wide, the winds blow bitter cold and it’s just hard enough. And sometimes, it is all just nonsense and creamed potatoes. She thought about that a moment and smiled inappropriately at the man.
“My father and my brother died when I was young, maybe three, four. My mother was accused of the killing and went to jail. She didn’t do it.”
“I remember we were walking on the beach,” she continued. “My mother was holding my hand. It was cold, I can still feel the wind from the ocean, still, smell the salt air. I even remember the salty bitter odor of a dead seagull we stepped over. We went into this abandoned net house at the top of a sand dune. It was a white clapboard hut with a collapsed roof and piles of beach sand pouring in through the door and windows.
“As we stepped through the door and stood in a shadow; I shivered. It was cold away from the sun. There was a pile of black netting in the middle of the room, looking to me like a mountain, something to play on, to crawl to the top of and look down upon my mother. I remember all that. My mother’s hand was on mine: she squeezed me hard enough that it hurt. I looked up at her and saw that she was watching something at the top of the dark mountain.
“It was the Blue Man; he was wrapped around the waist by the black netting, looking like a standing God staring down over us in a black wave. Then I looked closer. I thought he was asleep. His eyes were closed. It was my father, and he was dead.” She stopped, sobbing a little, that small girl again, seeing through those childhood eyes.
“My mother and I ran out the door onto the sand, I remember stepping on the dead seagull with my bare feet; it reached up with its beak, biting at my foot. That’s where my memory ends. Where we went from there, I don’t remember.” She stopped again and looked up at him. “That’s the Blue Man. I saw him in the hallway outside your office. He looked at me, his eyes were open, I thought he was going to speak, and I knew what he wanted.”
“Well,” said Busssen. “That is quite interesting. A serious tale. Something to consider. Where was your brother? You say he was also killed?”
“Yes, that same day: drowned they say, by my mother.”
“But you don’t believe it?” he asked, then leaned over to pick up the pipe and hat, placing the hat back on his head so that it covered his eyes again. The pipe he held over his head, studying it for flaws as if it were a diamond trophy. He began to smile again, glad to have his pipe returned unharmed.
“No, I am sure she didn’t do those things.” The woman leaned forward, watching him playing like a child with the pipe.
Then, she noticed the small round window behind the man. The curtains were drawn. Melissa stepped behind him, pulled the curtains open, and stared out.
“This is an unusual window,” she said. “It looks like one you would see in a boat.” She paused, surprised at what she saw.
“This window overlooks the ocean. I never would’ve thought that.”
“How is she supposed to have done it?” the detective asked. “It’s not easy to drown somebody…especially a woman drowning a man.”
“They said she drugged him first: got him drunk. Then she pushed him overboard on a shrimp trawler. How odd, there are three trawlers out there now.”
“Is anyone standing on any of them? Maybe, it is too far to tell? You know you can tell me the truth?”
“There is, there are two of them, a man and a boy it looks like. How odd.”
Neither of them spoke again for several minutes as Melissa stared out the window at the boats. She imagined she saw the man and the boy waving. There was the barely audible sound of a bell from the street outside the office. It rang off and on, becoming louder, more distinct. She realized what it was, an ice cream truck was passing on the street below.
“‘An odd place to try to sell ice cream: there are no kids in this neck of the woods,” she thought. She leaned closer to the window, looking down at the top of the truck. It had stopped, but its bell was still ringing.
“While you are talking, how is she supposed to have done it? Why did she do it? Her own child too and from a boat?”
“It was like that,” she whispered to herself as she gazed through the small oval window. “It’s like it is being played out again before my eyes.”
“What was she doing on a trawler anyway? Out in the middle of the ocean? Kind of an unusual place for a family anyway.”
“As I said, she didn’t do it. All that was made up by somebody. It was my brother’s death that messed things up. He got caught up in the netting.”
“Losing your brother must have been tough on your mother.”
“It killed her in the end.” She heard the ringing of the ice cream truck again; this time becoming fainter as it headed down the street.
“It also killed my dad.”
“There’s a storm coming up over the ocean. I can see the sheets of rain from here. This is a strange window you have for an office. Round, like a ship’s portal. You can see a long way from here. Over the sea.”
“They were letting the net out, just like that,” she said.
“Like that? Like what?” asked Busssen.
“Just like they are doing now on that boat. You can see it through your window.”
“I don’t see anything.” The detective turned to his pipe again. “You see a man and a boy on that ship? I can barely even see the ship.”
“The fog is moving in. Keep looking. Soon, you won’t be able to see anything at all.”
That’s when the bell started ringing again; the ice cream truck was making its way back.
“I could use some of that. Would you like some ice cream?” asked the detective.
Then an odd thing caught Melissa’s eye, a shadow of a movement to the left of the man’s desk. “There’s a door there on that wall,” she said. “Where does it go?”
“It takes you down. It’s a private entrance.”
She walked over and turned the knob: it opened onto a dark stairway. “Isn’t there a light in here? It’s dark as night.”
“Sorry, no light in there. It burned out. I never got around to replacing it.”
She stepped onto the landing, then started down the stairs, holding fast to the rail. The steps creaked and the whole stairway seemed to wobble under her feet, as if they might at any moment collapse. He followed a few steps behind.
“These stairs aren’t very stable.”
“I’m pretty sure nobody ever uses them. You may be the first.”
“Just where do they come out anyway?”
He never answered.
“Didn’t he even know?’ she thought. ‘This didn’t look like a place he would find welcoming with his silly hat and pipe.” It made her smile, his hat, and his pipe, the way he looked at it like it was something: something special.
Carefully, one step at the time, she made her way down. There was no door leading out and she assumed they must be approaching some kind of basement, but she couldn’t tell in the darkness. The steps continued to creak and shake as she walked. Then, she realized she was alone. The detective who had been following her was no longer there.
“Hello,” she called out, “are you still behind me?”
There was no answer, but she could hear someone walking on the stairs, but a long way up, and it sounded like he was walking away from her. But she could hear him breathing; even feeling his breath on her cheek. She paused a little longer and listened as his footsteps faded away and eventually simply stopped. Was he just standing there, waiting for her to speak or something, playing again with his little toy?
“He is such a child,” she thought. “No use at all to me.” Just when she had decided to turn back and head up, she caught a glimpse of blue light before her, somewhere in the stairwell below.
“There’s a light down there,” she shouted, her voice echoing on the brick walls, more to give herself courage than anything else. She knew he wouldn’t answer; yet, she still heard him breathing so loud that even that was echoing. For a moment she heard a tentative heartbeat, then, from somewhere, the plaintive sighing of a child.
She decided to see where the light led, to continue downward on the stairs.
“I see something down here. I’m going to see what it is, are you coming?” she shouted up into the black ceiling above her.
There was no reply, just the sound of dripping water: it reminded her of blood, and for the first time in this dark stairwell, she was afraid. She stepped slowly downward. Then, something gave way in her hand and she was falling forward. Her hand had slipped, the rusted handrail had given way and she was toppling forward on the stairs.
In a panic, expecting to land on the hard steps below, she instinctively reached her arms out to cover her head. In the instant she was falling, she spotted the blue light again, and realized it was shimmering, as if underwater. It had to be an illusion.
She was suddenly cold, time slowed to a standstill like she was hanging midair, then a deep blazing, bluish-white flash hit her eyes as she broke the surface of the pool.
“‘He’s such a child, he’ll be no help at all. I’ll drown out here”’ she thought again. She was sinking, being sucked down as if in a whirlpool. Even with her eyes closed, the light blazed and swirled inside her head, churning her thoughts, choking her lungs. She was going to die.
She remembered something.
“Mom, do you remember the Blue Man?”
“The Blue Man; you remember that?” her Mom answered. “That was ages ago; you couldn’t have been more than three.”
“I remember seeing him in that old net house.”
“I thought it was Dad.”
“Don’t be silly. Why would you think that?” her mother answered, shaking her head in the manner she used to do. Her hair was looking nice, Melissa thought, and she was wearing her gold ring.
“Did you kill him?”
“Honey, your dad’s not dead: he’s just asleep. And there was no Blue Man; that was just a story he used to tell you.”
“And my brother?”
“You were such a tomboy,” she looked at her; she wasn’t old anymore. She was sitting in her favorite chair again, looking off into the distance, pretending as she used to do that she wasn’t alone. She hadn’t died.
“He’s such a child,” her mother whispered to herself. “No help to me at all.”
Zack Taft tells us the following about himself, “Sitting here now, looking out the window onto the bare brick wall of the building next door. (I live in a compound of sorts- no, not a prison, smarty pants). There are several others who live here, I think; sometimes I see signs of there being other people here, scraps of paper, chicken bones, that kind of thing. I guess it could be rats, though…and sometimes I hear doors slamming closed, so, who knows? Not really sure how I got here, but I’m pretty sure I must have come willingly.” As this story shows, Zack has quite an imagination and appears to be a fan of hard-boiled detective fiction, although he adds his own special twist.