When the rain comes down in this city it comes down like it’s not sure it wants to commit, bouncing off the streets and rolling on towards whatever promises gravity offers, unsatisfied with the ground it hits. It’s a rain that knows what rain is supposed to do, but not what comes after. I can relate.
It’s two minutes to seven on a Tuesday, closing time, when the door to my office creaks open. Outside my window the streetlights are coming on, lighting up the wet pavement like a surgeon’s table. I look up from my half-opened envelope to find him in the doorway, nervous, with a slouch that tells me he doesn’t feel right standing here, or maybe anywhere. In his tailored suit with the hand-patched pockets, he looks like trouble. That’s fine, because trouble is my business.
“You’re Perry?” he asks, with his hand on the black P painted over my glass door.
German, I note, or something like it. It’s a hard life for a German these days on cold American cement. I can sympathize. People get a look at my coloring and they draw conclusions like an unsupervised toddler on whitewash.
“I’m looking for a private detective,” he says. “They say you’re the best,” he says.
They probably do. I only take the worst cases, the pick of the illegitimate litter. The other detectives with IAWACA can handle the missing rings and lost dogs of the world, but when the real twisted ones hang their coats on the rack, Monogram sends them down the hall to see me. I’m proud of my record. I never come back empty handed.
He flows into my room like the kind of river that bodies don’t float in, like slick trouble, but when he tries to rest a hand on my bookshelf the whole thing goes out from under him and it pretty much spoils the effect. I set my letter aside and come round the desk to offer him a hand up. He’s middle aged, with features as sharp and striking as a double headed axe. I wonder if he’s married. I tell myself not to wonder about that. He takes my hand gratefully, with long fingers and an iron vice grip. I wonder again about his marital state.
“Thanks,” he says, completely shed of the peculiar slithering grace from before. “I’m—sorry, that wasn’t a very good first impression.”
On his left hand there is a glove, the knuckles of it bulging strangely, and I am looking for a wedding ring but I am also a detective. I notice when things aren’t quite right. He catches me looking, and he produces a smile with the same success that a buzz saw produces a melody.
“Uh,” he says. He peels back the bottom of the glove to reveal the glint and whirl of metal pieces. “1918,” he says, like an apology, “I was only on the field for a month before the armistice but, boy, war can really pack it in for a guy. Would you believe it happened while they had me out there as a translator? But that’s a tragic back-story for another day.”
This man, I begin to suspect, is going to take up a lot more than two minutes of my time.
“I’m here because—well I work at this club, on week nights, and I—that’s, uh, that is we—”
I hold up a hand. Some clients need more patience than I usually have to spare, but this one makes me think of the blink and flare of cinema, the frantic ticking of film feeding into a projector. I like it. I gesture for him to sit down in the chair across from the desk.
“The word is,” he says, “your organization is where most of the mob arrests happen. I mean, we all know the cops won’t so much as spit in the Don’s coffee while Roger is Mayor. But you guys, you’re really a, a thorn in the… hey, is mob a plural noun or a collective noun?”
I hold up two fingers.
“Collective, right,” he says. “You don’t talk much, do you? Is it a hardboiled thing? Do you have a wordcount limit?”
I’m surprised Monogram didn’t warn him. But then, it’s seven now. Monogram likes to get home to his dinner a little too early, in my opinion, although I’m sure his wife appreciates it. I press fingers to my throat and shake my head.
“Oh,” he says, “you can’t? What was it, the war? You look young enough for the last one.”
I nod. That was easier than expected. With most clients I usually have to resort to scribbling on notepads, which don’t come cheap. This client isn’t most clients, though. I’m certain of it now.
He reminds me, in a vague way, of my nephew. Even now the envelope on my desk wants me to pick it up and finish opening it, but I already know what it will say. The boys want me to come visit. We live in the same city. They think it should be easy. But there’s so much work to be done, and I’m the one who does it because when you work hard they thank you with more work. And even if I could leave, I’ve been lying with dogs. Who knows what kind of fleas I’m carrying, at this point. It’s a dangerous business.
“Anyways,” he carries on, “we have this big ugly mobster snooting around the place lately, looking for protection money, harassing the help, you know. Mobster stuff. I guess most places just pony up the cash to bribe them off but we’re… uh, the rent goes up like every month because the landlord kind of… wants us out… So I thought maybe you could dig something up to get him off our backs?”
I don’t like blackmail. On principal, I don’t like the muckraking for moral failure. I feel like I always come back home tracking mud. But the fact of the matter is that the jails in this town are held together with candy floss and the district attorney’s shoestrings, and blackmail does what handcuffs wish they could.
I give this man another hard once-over. His story feels thin. There’s something he’s not telling me. If it were a decade ago I’d say there was alcohol involved, but they rolled up prohibition a long time ago and the tristate area isn’t in a dry county. It’s something else. I’d be smart to turn him down right now and get home to the rest of my unopened mail. The reason I don’t… the reason is something to do with his intricate false hand and his hand-patched pockets, and the way he toppled right over the moment he tried to play it cool against my book shelf.
I take a business card from my pocket and offer it to him, leaving my other hand open to receive one of his. He fumbles in his wallet, which is peeling strips of leather like a busy tanner’s work room, and trades me.
Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, the card says, inventor, part time entertainer. The address of his club is listed under evening hours.
I’ll take the case, but I don’t walk into anything blindly.
The rain comes down thin that evening, thinner than a cheating husband’s excuses, while I find the club in question at the far end of my side of town, buried between a couple similar establishments. In the drizzle their neon sign sizzles like the cherry of a cigarette, hot and pale red against the darkness. This is my side of town, in the sense that no one looks twice at my skin when I’m out in the street, but I don’t actually get out and around much. I can’t recall ever seeing the place before.
The man at the door takes a hard look at me, but I flash him Heinz’s card and it seems to do the trick. There’s definitely something here that’s not quite right. Hole-in-the-wall week night clubs don’t have doormen on duty. The guiding hand of the carpet takes me in past an old fashioned bar and into the dim smoky heart of the place, tables and chairs populated thinly with what I can only assume are the true regulars, the kind who come out on a Tuesday night for a gin and tonic. And for the show? Beyond the chairs there is the stage, and on the stage a pair of heels, and in those heels, there is Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz. I recognize him in a heartbeat.
The dress he’s wearing glitters in the half light. Twenty years ago it must have been worth a sheik’s ransom, with its thousands of blue glass seed beads. It’s dated now, but there’s still some of the old jazz in it. The butterfly that’s apparently taken up residence in my heart throws itself against my ribcage, presumably hoping to flutter up a little closer up to the stage. I can’t blame it. There’s a kind of charm to the routine, the gloves and the heels and the bright but gravelly singing voice. He sounds like he’s having fun.
So it’s this kind of club. The pieces all click together for me, the bouncer and the story about the money, and the crime. No wonder someone thinks he can get away with harassing the establishment.
I wait at the edge of the stage until the song is done. He comes skipping into the wings like a man half his age and skids to a sudden stop when he spots me, sharp enough to leave marks on the wooden floor. His eyes go wide and round. If my heart is fluttering, from the looks of it his is probably spinning like a windmill.
“Oh,” he says, “Perry. How unexpected. And by unexpected, I mean, I was sure you’d come in after business hours.” He laughs nervously, pulling off the huge pearlescent clip-on earrings like they’re the most dire part of his ensemble.
What could I say, even if I could say something at all? I didn’t wait till closing because I’m nosy. I didn’t trust him. And in a way I was right, but mostly I was wrong. It’s not a shady club after all, except in the technical sense, which doesn’t matter. So I just smile, and shrug, and nod towards the stage.
“You liked it?” he says, turning to look as well. He plants his hands on his hips, regarding the stage like a critical referee. “It was alright, but they won’t pay for chorus girls on a week night so it doesn’t have the pizzazz I was really going for. I was thinking of a kick line.”
I’m quickly finding that it’s hard not to smile when he’s in his element like that. Compared to the nervous hunch from a few hours ago, it’s as if a heavy suit has been peeled off him. I catch his eye and point down the length of his dress, hoping to convey the right question.
“Oh, the dress,” Doofenshmirtz says, brushing nervously at the beads. “Yeah, I had to wear them for a while back in the old country, there was this mix up with the rations, it’s a whole thing I shouldn’t get into right now, and I guess I just never saw what the fuss was about—very popular with the soldier boys, very swishy, and they look good under a limelight, am I right?”
He gives me this desperately cheerful look, the kind of look a death row inmate gives the guard who’s just opened his cell. The butterfly in my heart flutters in distress. I give him my most reassuring smile, and he positively lights up.
To be honest, this is not helping my periodic mental inquiries about his marital state. Some people would assume that, with the type of club and the dress and all, that would be the end of that. Some people haven’t been around the same blocks I’ve been around.
“Desoto hasn’t been around so far,” Doofenshmirtz says. “Hang on till closing time. I’ve got another number, and then we can get a drink. You do—you do drink, right?”
Most people have this idea in their heads that private dicks are bourbon-guzzling debt-piling chumps. I don’t go in for that sort of thing. Clean life, neat space, and relentless work ethic. Just because a PI isn’t getting a paycheck from the city commissioner doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take their work seriously. On the other hand, with Doofenshmirtz making that face, it’s hard to say no to anything.
I settle in between a couple of prop boxes and watch the rest of the show from the side lines. He sparkles out there, even without the chorus girls or the kick line. His voice is a little… well, it’s carrying the tune, and it’s carrying it in a bucket made of gravel and enthusiasm. But it grows on you.
Conventional wisdom goes that in your career as a private eye, everyone gets at least one Dame. Not just a regular lady. You get plenty of those. They mean a heart squeezer, the show stopper, the big trouble in a glossy little package. A Dame. Watching the doctor croon his Fitzgerald love song, I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t something like that after all. Even for private eyes who never had much to do with either ladies or dames.
I’m half way done with a cigarette when he steps off again, flicking dust from the bangs of his bobbed wig. He’s pulling his wallet from the pocket of his jacket, on the rack, when he notices the smoke.
“You know those—those things are bad for your lungs,” Doofenshmirtz tells me.
I glance down at the cigarette. Everybody who came back from the war smokes now. They gave you a pack with your rations because paper is cheaper than spam. I wasn’t much for the habit before I left, but once it gets you it really gets you.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Doofenshmirtz says, holding up his hands, “nobody believes me when I tell them. But, have you ever noticed how you can’t do much without wheezing once you start smoking them? I’ve been working on this machine—” he unfolds a smudged diagram from his peeling wallet, showing me a contraption that looks like the devil got drunk and seduced a blacksmith’s bellows. I blanch.
“Yeah,” he says, without looking up, “it’s a little clunky but it’ll do the job. I wish the patent office would write me back already.”
He folds it up again and takes my arm, pulling me down the steps and into the dimness of the seating area. The piano player is flying solo now, and Doofenshmirtz hums along to As Time Goes By like he’s heard it a thousand times before. He picks out a table and talks the bartender out of a couple drinks, less certain and less easy in his movements without the stage lights pouring over him. He trips on a patron’s chair and gets into a petty argument about whose fault it was. I watch him with my cheek in one hand. I’m getting the feeling this sort of thing happens around him a lot.
In the course of the next two hours he tells me more than I ever would have asked to know about a small Germanic territory called Drusselstein, where he apparently grew up before the first world war. They were independent, and then they were part of Germany, and now it sounds like they’re independent again. He tells me he got involved in the war younger than some boys, but it was the tail end of the conflict and by then they weren’t picky about manpower. He tells me he used to entertain in a POW camp, with a troupe. He tells me he was married, but he’s not married anymore. Heinz Doofenshmirtz doesn’t seem to have any secrets, even concerning things I’m almost certain he signed confidentiality waivers on.
“During the last war, I was working on this bomb for the American army,” Doofenshmirtz says, proving my point, “not the—not the big one, the Japanese one; we were working with infinianite—”
I hold up a hand to cut him off, partly because I’m not sure I should be hearing any of this, and partly because a latecomer has walked through the door. I check the clock. It’s nearly closing. He’s a big man, the kind that looks like he’s made from a couple of smaller men stuffed into a single trench coat. I tip my head quietly in his direction.
“Huh?” Doofenshmirtz says. “Oh. Yep, that’s the lug.”
I set my glass down.
“You’re gonna follow him?” Doofenshmirtz says, sounding uneasy. “Don’t you wanna… wait a while? I mean, we’ll be fine for another night. No point in rushing a good investigation, right?”
As a matter of fact, I think I know Desoto. And if I know him right, this is going to be a lot simpler than a typical investigation. Already I’m thinking of how to tell the doctor that I won’t require the usual fee. Desoto ought to back off at the first sign of a challenge, mangy bottom of the dog pack that he is. He’s only looking for someone weaker to flex his muscles at. Mobsters like him can’t do anything without a boss showing them where to plant their feet. I imagine myself telling Doofenshmirtz that the drinks and the company were payment enough.
After a few minutes of intimidating the patrons, Desoto scales the plywood steps and disappears into backstage. I straighten my tie and follow, ducking into the sawdust-scented darkness. There’s no sign of him but the faint haze of rain in the air, drifting in from the exit door. Judging from its placement in the building, it ought to open up into an alley. I reach into my pocket for the pistol I make a point of never checking at the coat rack. Another detective might go right through that door, expecting to find nothing on the other side but a scandalous liaison with a waiter. That was what I was hired for, after all, but I didn’t live this long by expecting things to be easy.
Pressed along the wall beside it, I push the door slightly ajar. Nothing outside seems immediately amiss. I slip through, keeping myself in the shadow of the exit until I can quietly close it again. The alley is empty. That’s not right. If the alley is empty then where is—
The cage, when it falls, is cartoonishly precise. It reminds me of nothing so much as the animated slapstick I took Phineas and Ferb to see the last time I visited them. The metal hits the pavement with a clang, bouncing a little on contact—it can’t be very heavy, I think, not if it bounces like that—and it screens me off from the rest of the world with a set of iron bars each about as thick as my arm.
Desoto reappears, lurking like an uncertain ghost in the steam and haze of the alley. I squint past him, looking for another spot of darkness. This is too complicated for the likes of Desoto. He needs direction.
The backstage door creaks open again, and out steps Doofenshmirtz, who takes a quick assessment of the situation and turns to Desoto.
“Did you get the gun?” he asks.
“Er,” Desoto says, “no.”
Doofenshmirtz lets out a frustrated noise. “I told you,” he says, “you disarm him in the stage area, then you run outside. He could shoot us any time now, you dumkoff.”
“Yeah,” Desoto says, “but I know him. He’s scary. I like all my fingers unbroken, Doc.”
Doofenshmirtz blows out a cheek full of irritated air and spins on his two-inch heels. “Sorry about that,” he tells me, “good help is, well, it’s hard to find isn’t it. Especially when somebody else is supplying it.”
I’m in a cage. In an alley way. And a night club singer is berating a mobster for not taking my gun earlier. I usually consider myself a man of the world, but this is a new one for me. Doofenshmirtz must see the look I’m giving him, because he skips over and leans a hip against the cage.
“You like the trap?” he asks, rapping one of the bars with his gloved knuckles. “I haven’t done this in ages. I gotta say, it feels good to get back in the game! And you’re such a good sport, really, just a pleasure to work with. You should definitely come investigate my next crime. I think we could have a good thing.”
I raise an eyebrow at him. If there’s a crime going on here, besides dropping objects on innocent investigators, it’s news to me.
“It’s nothing personal,” he reassures me, “I’m only subcontracting right now. Boy, you have really made some people in the mob hopping mad. Anyways, Desoto’s boss should be around here innnnnn… about two minutes, and he’s going to have some words for you. Or whatever it is gorillas like that use instead of words, I’m thinking big heavy sticks?”
I look down at the bottom of the cage. I’m pretty sure I can lift this, or at least knock it over. And I’m still armed. I close my fingers over the pistol in my pocket. They tell you not to fire at people if you’re not willing to kill them. Well, I don’t want to kill anyone even at the worst of times, but especially—and I’m not entirely sure why—not the bizarre German who has trapped me in an alleyway with a member of the criminal organization I’ve spent the last four years trying to take down.
The faint light from the yellow clouds above the city goes abruptly dark. Above the roof of the club, the puffed expanse of a zeppelin is slowly passing overhead. The rain goes strangely quiet around us, as the ship blots out the sky.
“Stop by for a gin sometime!” Doofenshmirtz says. “You know where to find me!”
And then he does something I’ve been half thinking of for hours now, in the back of my mind. He reaches between the bars and reels me forward, towards him, and plants a kiss at the corner of my mouth. For a moment I think I see gardenias blooming around us. White flowers in the rain.
A ladder uncoils from high above us and hits the ground. Doofenshmirtz readjusts the brim of my hat while I am busy trying to stay upright and professional. I know that Ella Fitzgerald isn’t actually singing in the background, but it feels a little bit like that anyhow.
Every good detective story has a no-good dame. Mine shoots me a wink and a little wave, and grabs hold of the ladder as the zeppelin rises slowly into the clouds.
I don’t know what this is, but I’ve got a feeling it’s the kind of thing that gravity promises raindrops on their way down.