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Gun, with Occasional Musicby Jonathan Lethem
IT WAS THERE WHEN I WOKE UP, I SWEAR. THE FEELING.
It was two weeks after I'd quit my last case, working for Maynard Stanhunt. The feeling was there before I tuned in the musical interpretation of the news on my bedside radio, but it was the musical news that confirmed it: I was about to work again. I would get a case. Violins were stabbing their way through the choral arrangements in a series of ascending runs that never resolved, never peaked, just faded away and were replaced by more of the same. It was the sound of trouble, something private and tragic; suicide, or murder, rather than a political event.
It was the kind of musical news that forces me to perk up my ears. Murder doesn't get publicized much anymore. Usually it's something you hear in an after-hours place between drinks-or else you stumble across it yourself on a case, and then you're the lone voice at the bar, telling a story of murder to people afraid to believe you.
But the violins nagged at me. The violins said I should get up that morning and go down to my office. They said there was something like a case out there. They set my wallet throbbing.
So I showered and shaved and got my gums bleeding with a toothbrush, then stumbled into the kitchen to cauterize the wounds with some scalding coffee. The mirror was still out, with fat, half-snorted lines of my blend stretching across it like double-jointed white fingers. I picked up the razor blade and steered the drugs back into a wax-paper envelope, and brushed off the mirror with my sleeve. Then I made coffee, slowly. By the time I was done with it, the morning was mostly over. I went down to the office anyway.
I shared my waiting room with a dentist. The suite had originally been designed for a pair of psychoanalysts, whose clients were probably better able to share than the dentist's and mine-back when telling other people about your problems was the rage. I sometimes thought it was ironic, that the psychoanalysts had probably hoped to put guys like me out of business, but that in the end it had been the other way around.
Myself, I couldn't see answering all those personal questions. I'm willing to break the taboo against asking questions-in fact it's my job-but I'm pretty much like the next guy when it comes to answering them. I don't like it. That's just how it is.
I bustled past the dentist's midday patients and into my office, where I lowered my collar and relaxed my sneer. I'd been away for almost a week, but the room hadn't changed any. The lights flickered, and the dust bunnies under the furniture pulsed in the breeze when I opened the door. I couldn't see the water stain on the wall because of the chair I'd pushed up against it, but that didn't keep me from knowing it was there. I burdened the hunchbacked hat tree with my coat and hat and sat down behind the desk.
I picked up the telephone, just to check the dial tone, then set it back down: dial tone okay. So I tuned in my radio to hear the spoken-word news, assuming there was any. All too often the discordant sounds of the early report are all smoothed over by the time the verbal guys get to it, and all you're left with is the uneasy feeling that something happened, somewhere, sometime.
But not this time. This time it was news. Maynard Stanhunt, wealthy Oakland doctor, shot dead in a sleazy motel room five blocks from his office. The newsman named the inquisitors who would be handling the case, said that Stanhunt had been separated from his wife, and that was it. When it was over, I switched stations, hoping to pick up some other coverage, but it must have played as the lead story all across the dial, the moment the morning ban on verbiage lifted, and there wasn't any more.
My feelings were mixed. I hadn't figured on knowing the victim. Maynard Stanhunt was an arrogant man, an affluent doctor who'd built up a pretty good surplus of karmic points to match what must have been a pile in the bank, and he let you know it, but in subtle ways. He drove an antique name-brand car, for instance, instead of the standard-issue dutiframe. He had a fancy office in the California Building and a fancy platinum blonde wife who sometimes didn't come home at night, or so he said. I probably would have envied the guy if I had never met him.
I didn't envy Stanhunt because of the mess he'd made of his life. He was a Forgettol addict. Don't get me wrong-I'm as deeply hooked on make as the next guy, maybe deeper, but Stanhunt was using Forgettol to carve his life up like a Thanksgiving turkey. I found that out the night I tried to call him at home and he didn't recognize my name. He wasn't incoherent or groggy-he simply didn't know who I was or why I was calling. He'd hired me out of his office, probably because he didn't like the idea of a shabby private inquisitor tracking mud over his expensive carpets, and now his evening self just didn't know who I was. That was okay. It was justified. I'm a mess, and I imagine Maynard Stanhunt kept his home pretty nice. Everything about Maynard Stanhunt was pretty nice except the job he hired me to do for him: rough up his wife and tell her to come home.
He didn't come right out with it, of course. They never do. I'd been in his employ for almost a week, working what I thought was strictly a peeper job, before he told me what he really wanted. I didn't bother explaining to him that I went private partly because I didn't like the part of the job where I bullied people. I just refused to do it, and he fired me, or I quit.
So now the golden boy had gone and gotten himself nixed. Too bad. I knew that the coincidence of my working for the dead man would earn me a visit from the Inquisitor's Office. I didn't relish it but I didn't dread it. The visit would be perfunctory because the inquisitors had probably already settled on a suspect: if they weren't about to break the case with a flourish, they never would have let it get all over the verbal news.
For the same reason I knew there wasn't any work in it, and that was a shame. The whole thing would be crawled over by the Office, and that didn't leave enough room for a guy like me to work-assuming there was a client. It was probably an open-and-shut case, and the one poor soul who was client material was probably also guilty as hell. Murder earned you a stay in the freezer, and the guy the inquisitors had in mind was likely no more than a few hours from cold storage.
It wasn't my problem. I switched back to the musical news. They were already comforting the populace with a soothing background of harps playing sevenths, and the rumble of a tuba to represent the inexorable progress of justice. I let it lull me to sleep on the desk.
I don't know how long I slept, but when I woke, it was to the sound of the dentist's voice.
"Wake up, Metcalf," he said a second time. "There's a man in the waiting room who doesn't want his teeth cleaned."
The dentist swiveled on his heels and disappeared, leaving me there to massage my jaw back into feeling after its brief, masochistic marriage to the top of my wooden desk.
Copyright © 1994 by Jonathan Lethem
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
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