Fiction: A Trip South

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“Detective’s Office” by Eugenio Garcia Villarreal

Some of you may remember a short detective story I wrote some months ago. I’ve been playing around with the two characters, Herzog and Watkins, for some time, thinking I might write some more stories about the two, just because I liked them. But it seems to want to be more than a story or two, perhaps a novella. I am not sure.

At any rate, this is the second installment. It’s admittedly a first draft.  I’m simply interested in knowing whether the characters interest and engage. The rest of the writng I can fix later, if it seems as if the characters are worth the time and effort.

If you haven’t read the first story, and would like to, it is here.

Enjoy,

Tom

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Chapter 2: A Trip South

Herzog’s wife looked at him with amusement.

Her amusement irritated him, because when she turned to humor, she was inevitably right, generally at his expense.

“Tell me again why we are going to Roanoke?” she asked.

“To see Watkins.”

Watkins had been his best friend in graduate school, some twenty plus years ago.  They were both there as sort of a hiatus.  Herzog had wanted to be a writer, a past time his father thought foolish in a family that had produced five generations of lawyers. But the old man had agreed to send Herzog to a writing program for his masters, in exchange for Herzog’s promise to go to law school afterward.

Always the good son, Herzog acquiesced.  The two-year program was one of the highlights of his forty-two-year-old life, a time of exploration, writing, growth and unpredictability.  It was the only time his life had not been scheduled and driven by rules.

Watkins on the other hand, seemed to be drifting.  Just out of the Army, he had no plans. He just needed a break and a way to let loose the pain of war.

The two met, and became fast friends despite their different backgrounds and attitudes. They were inseparable through school and then as they each went their own way, they had drifted apart.  Lost track. A common story.

Until last spring, when Watkins had shown up in a Philadelphia jail, accused of his father’s murder not far from Herzog’s home in Germantown, and by luck or instinct, Herzog had helped Watkins prove himself innocent.

Afterwards, as Watkins boarded the train to Virginia, he shook Herzog’s hand. “If you ever get tired of being predictable, come see me. I can put you to work in a heartbeat.”

The truth was, Herzog was already tired of being predictable. His venue was the law. He had served as a judge’s clerk for three years. He had been a financelawyer since then, delving into the arcane details of federal rules and regulations, and precedents that sometimes went back over a hundred years.

It was good work. It paid well. And it was utterly predictable. He could do it in his sleep.  Sometimes, he felt like he did.

To keep himself from totally stagnating, he had taken up boxing and judo when he moved back to Philadelphia.  Twice a week he spent a couple of hours wearing himself out against younger opponent, letting out his frustration at his unwillingness to let go of his dull, but very profitable life.

Watkin’s words had lingered in his mind for months. He still carried Watkins, business card in his wallet, and finally, after a particularly mind-numbing day in court, he pulled it out.

It was an odd card. Only Watkins’ last name, and a phone number.

But then, Watkins had always been a bit odd. A bit vague about what he did and who he was. Herzog had always thought it was part of who Watkins was, a way to keep people at bay.  He realized as he dialed his friend’s number, that he had no idea what Watkins actually did.

A woman answered.  Herzog was startled. Watkins had never mentioned a woman in his life. He had been married once. Herzog knew that. But it ended painfully and after that,  he had never heard a woman mentioned.

“Watkins’ office.”   A northern accent. Boston maybe. Herzog was not sure.

“Is Watkins in?”

“No, Mr. Herzog. He’s at Aesy’s. But he told me to tell you when  you called that his offer was still open.”

“How did you know….”

“Your name came up on the caller ID.  Can I get you a room? We have an arrangement with the Hotel Roanoke. It’s a five-minute walk from the office.”

“Well, ah…”

“It’s no problem. We have an arrangement with them. Oh, and he told me to tell you that there’s a boxing gym just around the corner. We can get you in there too.”

“How did he know….”

“That’s Watkins, Mr. Herzog. He just knows things.  It’s a bit odd, but you get used to it. So when would you like to come down?”

Herzog never did talk to his friend. Just like that, he made the arrangements with the woman on the phone. When he hung up, he realized he never got her name. All he had was a hotel reservation and the address of Watkins office.

“Tell me again why we are visiting Watkins?” His wife’s voice broke into his memory.

“I’m not really sure.” He said.

“I’ve always loved your honesty.” she said. “Even when it confuses me.”.

“I’m bored.” he said.

“I know.”

“So maybe I just need to go somewhere new.”

“Paris would have been nice.”

He looked up at her. Her eyes were twinkling.  She was teasing him

“Yes,” he said. “Paris would be nice. But I have a feeling it would not be nearly as interesting.”

“Why do you think that?”

He shook his head. “I am glad you love my honesty, because I have no idea.”

The flight to Roanoke was short and uneventful. They rented a car and settled into the room, a small suite in a grand old hotel at the edge of the small downtown.  It had been, as nearly everything in this town once had been, owned by the railroad. Unlike many of the grand hotels of the early 1900’s, this one had never fallen into disrepair and remained a magnificent monument to another age.

“Everything’s taken care of.” The clerk at the front told him as he checked in. “Enjoy your stay.”

When they got to their room, there was a certificate for the spa attached to the hotel, and several pamphlets for antique shops in the Roanoke area.  “Well, I’ll say this. Your friend knows how to show a girl a good time, though how he knew….” Her voice trickled out.

The woman from Watkins’ office played back in his head. “He just knows things.”

They unpacked and Watkins could not decide what to wear. Was this a job interview? Just a visit between two friends who had not seen each other for a long time? He wasn’t sure. He chose a pair of khakis and a blue shirt, with a navy blazer, then looked at himself in the mirror.

Predictable, he thought. Utterly predictable.

The walk to Watkins’ office was as short as the woman had said. Across a bridge that went over rows of train tracks, and two blocks.  Here the buildings were a mix, most of them relics from the early 1900’s. One or two fixed up, most of them just a little run down. There were small shops and restaurants and an occasional art gallery.

He came to the address the woman had given him. There was a pawn shop there, with a door to one side. He could see a staircase. That must be it, he thought, and went in, and up the stairs.

At the top of the steps, there was a door. An oak door with translucent glass in the top half. No plate or name on the door.  “Whatever he does, Watkins doesn’t advertise.” Herzog thought.  Taking a deep breath, he reached for the doorknob and opened the door.

He was unprepared for what he found.

He felt like he had been transported to a Humphrey Bogart movie. The room was out of a 1940’s film noir, with oak desks and filing cabinets,  and a pair of lush leather chairs in the corner. There was even a hat rack. Who uses hat racks anymore? Herzog wondered.

A woman was at the desk. She had big, 1980s hair, curly and long. Herzog almost expected her to be wearing a pencil skirt and white blouse, given the surroundings, but she was in jeans and a V-neck sweater.  She handed a stack of clothes, still in their wrappers, to a frazzled looking young woman. “There you go. I think I got all the sizes right, but if not, you just let me know.”

The young woman hugged her and and scurried out of the office, smiling shyly at Herzog as she left.

“Part of our private welfare program.” the woman smiled. “Watson spends as much as he makes helping people around the city. Maybe But he’s crazy quiet about it. You must be Herzog.”

Herzog nodded.

“Watson’s not here. He’s down at Aesy’s.”

“What is Aesy’s?”

“I don’t mean to be making assumptions Mr. Herzog, but you’re Jewish?”

“It shows?”

She smiled, a wide, warm smile. “It shows. And Watson said so.”

“And Watson knows things.”

“You’re learning.”

“If you are Jewish, then Aesy’s is probably your worst nightmare of a diner. It’s a real hole in the wall greasy spoon where nearly everything is cooked in ham fat.”

“He always liked his diners.”

“He says he loves it there, but I don’t think that’s why he goes. It was his former father in law’s favorite place, and I think he goes for the memories.”

“And the bacon.”

“And the bacon. But he promised he’d have them make you a good salad, all kosher and everything.  They like him there.”

“A regular.”

“That too.”  She gave him directions. Another two blocks past the courthouse.

As he went down the stairs, he realized he still did not know her name.

Aesy’s was as advertised.  It sat on a corner. Dark, empty bookshelves covered one wall. A diner bar with stools ran along the other side, with the kitchen behind it. The other two walls were glass, grey with dirt. A tiny black woman was working the stove.  A younger woman was taking orders.

Watkins was in the corner. He waved Herzog over. He stood up and gave Herzog a hug.  “I am glad you came.”

Herzog looked at his friend.  He looked good. Slender still. His hair was unruley. It always had been, Herzog thought. Clear eyes.They twinkled, reminding him of the look on his wife’s face this morning.  It left him feeling like he was missing something. He remembered having that feeling with Watkins as far back at grad school.

“Is it fate or are you taking control of your life?”

Herzog laughed. They had debated fate and free will the whole time they had been in school together. He was a free will guy. Watkins had been more ethereal. Neither had convinced the other.

Watkins signaled the waitress, who can bearing a cup of tea and a salad.  Watkins had a plate with the remnants of ham slices on it, and a few overcooked green beans. He had a cup of coffee.

Herzog looked around.  The woman in the office was right. This is a place he would have avoided like the plague.  But Watkins had always favored dives like this.  He saw something on the kitchen wall, to the side of the stove.  “What’s that?” he asked.

“Fatback. Aesy pretty much cooks anything in it. You have no idea what it took for me to convince her not to put bacon in your salad.”

Herzog shuddered.

“So are you going to take my job offer?”

“Watkins, I don’t even know what your job is. I have no idea what you do.”

“I told you in Philadelphia. I figure things out. I find things. I unravel stuff.”

“You’re a private detective.”

“Not legally. Legally I have no reason for being at all. I don’t like laws and licenses. They get in the way sometimes. Legally I am a vagrant with a good address.”

“Watkins, I know you were a poet, but you need to talk sense.”

“Am a poet, Herzog. I still write every morning. “

“Really?” Herzog had let his writing go over the past two decades.

“Really. But poetry doesn’t pay the bills. No one reads poetry anymore. So I help people who are stuck. It’s something I just kind of fell into when I finished working for the CIA.”

“You worked for the CIA?”

“Long story. I’m not proud of it. But you learn things even when you make mistakes. You make friends to go along with your enemies.  After I managed to get out, I wandered a bit, but ended back here, where we went to school.”

I had a friend, John, who needed help with something. I helped him. He paid me well. Very well in fact and I got to thinking maybe I could do more of it. Some of the people I help haven’t a penny to their names. Others, well others have paid me very well indeed.  Things balance out.”

“Fate?”

“Fate. Balance. I don’t know what to call it.. It just works. People tell other people.  I don’t really advertise, but when you help people out, they talk. Whether they are rich or poor, they talk. They find me.”

“It sounds like a sketch way to make a living.”

“It probably is. But there’s a lot of satisfaction in it. And all in all, the money is good.”

“How good?”

Watkins reached into his pocket and pulled out a bright blue cell phone. He tapped on the screen a few times, bringing up a bank app. He held it up for Herzog to see. “There’s my balance as of this morning.”

Herzog blinked. “Those are big numbers.” He said, remembering what the woman in office said about Watkins giving away as much as he kept. “Why do you need me?”

It wasn’t an idle question. He had no idea what he had to offer.

“I’m sloppy. I hate research. I run from my gut. I don’t know the law and I’d at least like to know when I am breaking it. You are good at all that stuff. You’re more systematic than me, and someone has to wrestle me down now and then.”

“You’re doing fine without me.”

“It’s not about money. Money is easy as it turns out. I could do better work with a partner who offsets my worst tendencies.  I’ll drive you crazy, but I can promise you this – your life will never be dull.”

Those last words hit Herzog like a sucker punch.

“Look Herzog.  Hang around for a week. See what you think.  Give it a chance.”

“Why me?”

“I trust you. I don’t trust many people. You came to my aid in Philadelphia when you had no real reason to.  That kind of loyalty is more important to me than anything. I only have two other people in my life I trust that way.  One of them works for me. I’d like you to work for me too.”

“Have you got some cases going now?”

“No, but things come up. They aways do.” He lifted his coffee cup in a toast. “Till then, I am a vagrant again.”

“You know I don’t believe in fate. I never did. I still don’t.”

Watkins smiled. His blue iphone rang out. A single bell. Watkins looked down at the text message.

“Maybe this will change your mind. It seems I have a client at the office. Care to join me?”

copyright 2017 by Tom Atkins/Quarry House Press

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