“So you want to be a private eye?” said the voice coming from behind the desk. A newspaper was open on the desktop. Bright sunlight was streaking in between the slats of thick venetian blinds.
“Yes,” I said. Show confidence. That’s what all the job-searching sites advised. Be positive. Don’t ask about money right away. “I’m definitely interested.”
“So who’s your favorite?” the guy said.
He was becoming visible in the haze, leaning back in a reclining desk chair. He had a funny sort of smile—like maybe he didn’t really mean it—dark hair, and dark eyes looking straight at me. His mouth hung open a bit. Hair was billowing up from between the open collar of his button-down shirt. A stubby finger pointed my way.
“Let’s see,” I said. Was this one of those trick questions like: Where do you see yourself in 50 years, or what’s your biggest fault? Probably still unemployed, is that fault enough?
“Shamus. Gumshoe. PI.” He came to my rescue. “I’m assuming you’ve got a favorite one or you wouldn’t be here, right?”
He sat up straight, folded the newspaper, and buttoned a button on his shirt. Maybe he’d seen me looking at that billowing ball of hair. Behind him there was another desk full of computers, three monitors side by side with three more stacked on top. The screens were full of tiny words or numbers, barely visible in the light.
“It’s kind of hard to pick,” I said. The word gumshoe had brought Bogart to mind. No. He was the actor. I stopped myself in time.
The Help Wanted sign taped to the door downstairs hadn’t given any details except Suite 409A. I’d taken the elevator up and walked down a long hall with offices on both sides. Two dentists, an insurance broker, a court reporting service, a travel agency, and a door that said: Harold B. DeBold PhD.
The last one gave me a chuckle. I decided if I had an office here, I would put GED under my name.
I followed the hallway around a corner and found two more doors. One was marked FIRE ESCAPE. The other said, “Sutter I-E Ltd. Please knock.”
“So what’s it gonna be,” the guy said and he crinkled the skin around his eyes. “Hammett? Chandler? Make my day and say Crumley.”
“Ah …” Who were these people?
“You’re fired if you say Robert Parker.”
I was trapped. I almost just turned around and walked out before the guy could ask for my e-mail and tell me he’d be in touch. Then a voice spoke in my ear.
“Jack Nicholson,” I said loud and clear. “Jake-what’s-his-name in Chinatown.”
“Gittes,” he said, “Jake Gittes,” and he gave me a real smile. “Well, good for you. I like that. So you’re a movie buff too, huh?”
I nodded. “Little bit,” I said.
“You know, first time I saw that,” he said, “I’m about ten minutes in and I’m thinking Chandler. It just had to be. He probably wrote it in a blackout drunk and then forgot all about it. And now someone’s finally found it in a locked trunk somewhere, probably out in one of those lost desert towns. But I get deeper, I’m thinking, no, no, it’s Ross MacDonald, all the family craziness, right? You already know the answer, of course, none of the above. It’s the best damn private eye novel never written, original screenplay by some freaky wizard whose name I forget. When can you start?”
“I’m hired?” I couldn’t keep the excitement out of my voice. It had been a bad few months.
“Not so fast,” he said. “Sit down. I gotta ask the standard questions.”
He pointed and I walked around and dropped into the chair beside the desk.
“School?” he said.
Now that I could actually see him, he didn’t look quite so dark. His hair was streaked with gray. He was 50 or so with puffy cheeks and a small, reddish nose. He wasn’t quite fat but he was a long way from thin.
School? This was one of those kiss-of-death questions. “You mean like college?” I said.
That earned me another smile. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I didn’t finish either. Where’d you start?”
“U of I,” I said. I didn’t actually start but once-upon-a-time I’d thought that’s where I’d end up, before the final year of high school got in my way.