The Private Eye
The gumshoe was gone.The lonely, swarthy, outlaw pounding the pavement on the hunt for criminals and other injustices had faded out of fashion. Now only a memory, he was preserved on pieces of celluloid and in books showcasing the classical genre of the film noir. His passing — for he had always been male –went virtually unnoticed except by a few romantic types who mourned him the way they mourned the cold war – a fight that had an enemy they thought they understood and therefore could beat.
The private investigator of the new millennium spent his time in tapping the keys of his computer, trying to make it sound like gunfire. He was busy Googling, endlessly looking for stolen cars, disinherited relatives, and leads about babies given up for adoption from closed-down hospitals in Ypsilanti, Michigan –the only clue – run by some forgotten Catholic charity. Gone also were the back alley bars, the shady warehouses, the dingy diners, and the dames who were always willing to fall in love.
The detective here, Kip Lewis of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had never personally known the golden era of the private eye –- he was not even 30 years old — but he missed the glory days as if he had owned them. He had been seduced into the profession by an early love of reading, in particular, anything by Dashiell Hammett. He declared his determined intention at a family dinner one summer night after rereading The Maltese Falcon and wishing he lived in the pages of the book. It did not have the effect he wanted, which was to be admired, like the heroes he read about. He lived with endless teasing – “Encyclopedia Brown” from his sister, “Marlowe” from his father. When keys got lost, when the cat disappeared, when Aunt Alice went out walking on the Highland Park Bridge, they called for his help and wept with laughter when he failed to produce any results.
He confided his vocational aspirations to his high school guidance counselor, a serious young woman without a clue how to counsel students. She agreed that it seemed like an honorable vocation. “You should train yourself to be observant,” she said. She was a big fan of Agatha Christie novels and explained how the detectives in those stories, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, were students of human nature. He heeded her advice and started keeping a journal. He recorded overheard conversations – getting help from his mother, the most accomplished gossip in the neighborhood.
He went to college, majored in criminal justice, and worked for different agencies–mostly following personal injury victims to see that they were really injured and could not work–before opening his own shop: KIP LEWIS –PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR.
Becoming a hero was proving more difficult than he had imagined.
Kip discovered early in his career that his clients wanted only one of two things: revenge or redemption.
Most wanted to repair their pasts. To redo their lives. They were captivated by ‘what might have been’ scenarios. He became familiar with loss and regret. “I deserve to know the truth,” was their motto but in the end, it was the last thing they wanted.
Just recently, there had been the woman from Squirrel Hill. She had come to him confident that there was something going on between her husband and his lawyer – a young beautiful but ambitious woman who worked for Reed Smith, a firm that didn’t leave a lot of play time for junior associates. The wife couldn’t figure out when they actually committed their acts of unfaithfulness, but she knew it was happening.
Kip went to work. The guy and his lawyer met in a downtown parking garage at 6:45 every morning. They parked their cars on the top level, which at that time of day was still empty. They had sex in the back of her car, then went their separate ways: she to her busy law firm, he to his family’s clothing store where numerous relatives reported his boring daily activities back to his wife, who knew in her heart that he was cheating.
Kip solved the case quickly. The woman was furious when he reported back to her. “You’re sordid,” she said. “You’re an awful man. I don’t know why you’re doing this to me. Stop. Just stop talking.”
He had photographs of the two lovers, not in flagrante delicto – that would have been overkill – but walking to the elevator. They were holding hands – like young lovers — pleased to be touching and happy to find a moment to share. As the case hadn’t taken up much of his time, he never went after the woman for his money. He chalked it up to experience, though he was not sure of the exact lesson he had learned.
His new case involved a doctor’s wife from Shadyside, who had been emailing him asking about procedures and fees and had finally asked to meet. She suggested a coffee shop in the William Penn Hotel downtown. He counter-suggested a place in his neighborhood of Lawrenceville. There was something odd about her; he could not quite figure it out. She was too tentative, which was normal, but something else didn’t ring right.
“I have to be careful,” she said. “I’m well-known in this city.”
“What about the Penn Brew Pub?” he asked.
It was a microbrewery in a historic landmark building, the kind of place that served all sorts drinks, coffees, teas, and homemade ales. They had a full food menu until midnight. It catered, like every other business in the neighborhood, to the younger consumer. Still, the woman could also get a glass of wine, if she needed one. His clients often did.
“Is there any parking there?” she asked. “I don’t suppose they have valet?”
They did not. “There’s a large lot by the river,” he said.
“Which river?” she asked.
She may have been well known in Pittsburgh, but she evidently did not know its geography. Lawrenceville was on the Allegheny.
He got there early like he always did. Ten minutes later a woman entered. She was nervous; she was out of place; dressed too nicely for a pub in the afternoon. Kip recognized all this at once. She caught his eye, and he nodded. She came over.
“I have to be careful,” she explained. “This place is a small town. My husband and I were social. We knew everyone.” She whispered, and he leaned closer to hear her throaty declarations.
She pulled back from him. “Will you excuse me?” she said. “I have to powder my nose.”
He stood as she got up. “Well,” she said. “It seems chivalry isn’t dead after all.” She smiled, and he saw her skin pulled taut around her eyes. She had had some work done. The first time it might have gone well, the second and third time had left their signs.
A shadow fell across his table “Isn’t she a little old for you?”
It was Polly, a woman he had dated for several months. He had thought they were moving towards something serious when she ended it, saying it was time for her to find someone more her type. They had not spoken since.
“She must be rich,” Polly said. “Even you wouldn’t date someone that old unless money was involved.”
“Even me?” Kip asked.
“You were always so desperate to be in a relationship.”
“That’s how you remember me?” he said.
“Well you were,” she said.
He wanted to correct her; he had not been desperate; he had been in love. Was their age so cynical that liking someone was considered a fault? He really was living in the wrong generation.
“You used to be a nice person,” he said.
“You just thought I was.” Polly was a small woman, compact and fit. She was a member of the Three Rivers Rowing Club and was on the river every morning before dawn. They trained without regard for the season. She had blonde-blonde hair and looked Norwegian or Swedish, a heritage that was slightly out of place in Pittsburgh where most everyone was from Eastern Europe. He had thought her hair natural – until a few months after they had broken up and a friend of his, a woman who owned a hair salon, had asked if he was still seeing that ‘bleached blonde chick.’ “Is it dyed?” he had asked for her professional opinion. The hairdresser nodded. “No one over the age of ten has that hair color naturally. I don’t care where you’re from,” when he had tried to tell her about Polly’s Scandinavian roots.
“You were nice enough to sleep with me,” he said. He had meant it to be witty, but it sounded pathetic. It was too early in the day for such a range of emotions. These sorts of self-doubts belonged in the dark.
“I’m not opposed to pity parties,” she said. Her bitter attitude was new, and he wished he hadn’t run into her.
“It’s a joke,” she said. “As an old lover I’m allowed to do that, aren’t I?”
“As a former lover, “ he corrected. “You’re the type who will never be old.”
“I need to talk to you, Kip Lewis, Private Investigator.”
“You mean this rendezvous was planned?” he asked.
“I’ve been following you,” she said. She mimed putting something up to her face, which he took to be an imaginary magnifying glass. The gesture made no sense if you were trailing someone.
“I need your professional help,” Polly said. They hadn’t spoken or texted in months.He had assumed she was with someone new. “Can we talk?”
“ I’m busy. That woman is a client.”
She seemed bothered by his answer as if she hadn’t expected him to be doing something that he couldn’t interrupt. She pushed her fists into her the pockets of her jean jacket.
“What about later?” she asked.
“Only if you promise to be nice.”
“I’ll buy you a drink. Whiskey, isn’t that right? Isn’t that what you private dicks drink?”
“Let’s talk later,” he said. Somewhere in the world there had to be someone better for him than Polly.
The woman returned from the restroom.
“Can I get you a glass of wine?” Kip asked.
“Do they pour a decent white here?” She looked around as if inspecting the place.
“I’m sure they must,” Kip said, but he had no idea what sort of wine they served. Not wanting her to think she was drinking alone, he ordered two glasses though he didn’t really like wine.
They sat and faced the window where the last of the autumn leaves had disappeared, and all that was left were the thin gray branches.
“Did you know that leaves don’t actually fall?” he asked.
She looked up. She was not a young woman, but she was polished. She knew how to dress; she obviously spent a great deal of time and care on herself.
“They’re pushed,’ he explained. “Every tree produces a sort of sap, which pushes on the leaves and separates them from the branches. If not, the winter would come, and the water and ice would weigh too heavily on the leaves, and it would kill the trees. The sap, doing what it does so naturally, actually saves the trees.” His story did the trick.
She said she wanted to tell him why she had hired him. “Let me start at the beginning,” she said.
It was where they all wanted to start. In the past. Way back when.
She had been very young and very much in love. “I wasn’t like the girls today,” she clarified. “I was so naïve. Sheltered and so very stupid about the ways of the world.”
Smart, horny girls, who had been out looking for fun, must have also given their babies up for adoption. Did they have second thoughts about what they had done? Or were they lucky in the way that smart, desirous, unimpressionable girls were? How come women never admitted to anything but being naïve? Anything but being nice and sheltered and young?
“I got pregnant. My parents sent me to a home for unwed mothers, though I don’t know why they called it that. I was the only one there. Me and some stupid fat cow who was supposed to take care of me but she was a holy roller and lectured me about the sinful and the wicked. I was both, and she loved telling me that. Luckily there were complications with my pregnancy, so I had to go to the hospital. I stayed there for a month until I had the baby.” She met her husband a few years later. She never told him about the baby, never said anything about being pregnant when she was a teen. He had recently filed for a divorce; he had found someone new.
“Just when I was starting to feel old and unsexy, he finds someone young and cute and full of life. They’re going to have five kids. She studied psychology in school and believes that ‘more kids’ is a healthier environment in today’s world.”
“Five is a lot,” he said.
“She’s young. And she’s rich. She’ll be able to afford as much help as she wants.”
She was giving him too much random information, but they all did this –tell him things he didn’t need to know. She drank the wine and seemed to be enjoying herself. Securing clients was a lot like dating. You had to court them, and you had to move slowly: you didn’t judge, and you mostly didn’t talk.
“Let me get a few things straight,” Kip, said. “The baby was born in Bedford, Pennsylvania thirty years ago, and afterward the baby was placed with a family from the community.”
The woman stared at him blankly, and for a moment he thought he was mixing up details from another case. They were all so much alike.
“I don’t care about the baby,” she said.
“Haven’t you been listening?” She was a prickly sort, that was for sure.
“I thought that was what we were talking about?” he said. “Don’t you want me to track down the baby?”
“My husband left me. I’ve got no one in my life. I want to know if anyone in this world loves me,” she said. The wine had loosened her tongue. It had also increased its volume.
He held his hand up and lowered it, liked a conductor, trying to get her to be quiet. She was not interested in that route. “I want to find the man,” she said. “I want the baby’s father,” she said.
“Why?” He had not meant to ask the question, but it was there all the same.
“He loved me,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how much he loved me all those years ago.”
They were sixteen. He wanted to have sex; who wouldn’t have professed everlasting love to get that they wanted at that moment? Kip remembered all the things he had said. He hadn’t meant much of it.
“ I want to find him and see if he still thinks about me. I want to know that. Want to know what he thinks about me.”
“It’s been a long time,” Kip said. She wasn’t that old. She had plenty of years left, but the past was gone. It wasn’t good to stay focused in that direction.
“I didn’t ask for help adding up the years,” she spat.
Kip should have ordered a beer. It would have been cool; he could have swallowed a whole glass one gulp.
“That’s what you want me to do? “ Kip wanted to make sure he understood. “That’s it? See if he wants to see you?”
“If he hesitates or his wife makes a fuss, or he seems bothered, you have to let me know right away. I’m curious. But I’m not desperate.”
She was willing to pay for him to check on a man’s emotional reaction after thirty years. Though she had protested, he had to disagree; that was desperation. They shook hands, and she handed him a check.
He went to the bar to pay the tab. Polly sat at the bar, reading The New York Times. She waved him over.
“What did that old granny want?”
“I can’t tell you,” Kip said.
“Is her husband cheating on her?” Polly asked. “That would be my best guess.”
“Call me when you want to go for that drink,” Kip said.
“What’s wrong with now?” Polly said.
“It’s a bit early for whiskey,” he answered.
The bartender stood in front of him. “Get him a double shot of Maker’s Mark,” Polly said.
“ I’ll have a beer.”
“What a wuss,” Polly said. “Don’t you have a reputation to uphold?”
He stood up. “Maybe this isn’t a good idea, Polly.”
“Sit,” Polly said. “Don’t be all sensitive on me. I need some help on something.”
“What is it?”
“It’s personal,” she said. “Private and confidential, isn’t that what your clients ask for?”
“I’m discreet,” Kip said. “You don’t have to worry about that.”
“I want to find my father. I want to find out who he is.”
Polly had been raised by her mother. The father, as far as Kip knew, had never been in Polly’s life. Kip had often wondered if that hadn’t been the reason for the large chip on her shoulder when it came to men. But overall she was tight-lipped about her family. She didn’t moan about them too often; she also didn’t spend much time with them.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to know, “ she said.
“But why now?” he asked.
“Isn’t that my business?” Polly said. “Isn’t it enough that I’m asking you to do this? It’s what I want. I want to know who my father is. Now.”
“I assume your mother knows who he is,” Kip said.
“She’s not saying,” Polly said. “She told me long ago that she wasn’t ever going to tell me.”
“Does she know you’re looking for him?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Polly said. She was drinking red wine. There was a faint line of blue circling her lips. “I want you to find him for me,” Polly said.
“Have you ever seen your birth certificate?”
“Under father’s name? What does it say?”
“It’s blank.” She wore two silver bands around her thumb, and she had a habit of t aking one off and sucking on it.
“You’re sure you just can’t ask your mother?”
“Dead sure,” Polly said. She was sitting crossed leg on the bar stool – an unsteady balancing act that seemed precarious as she shifted forward and backward.
“All right,” Kip said. The bartender had poured him another beer when Polly motioned him over. Alcohol made him tired. Being self-employed and afternoon napping did not mix. It made for long days where nothing got done.
“You’ll do it?”
“Sure,” Kip said. “I’ll make some inquiries.”
“I knew I could count on you.” She leaned sideways to hug him and tumbled off her stool. He stood and caught her from falling to the ground. He would have told her she had had enough for one day but thought it would sound condescending and stuffy, something she had accused him of once. He didn’t need a repeat performance of that.
“Stay and have another,” Polly said.
“Is this what you do now? Get drunk in the afternoon?” he asked.
“Day drinking cuts down on hangovers,” Polly said. “You wake up the next morning refreshed.”
Kip could already feel the melancholy pull of loneliness that came with alcohol. “Got to go,” he said. Otherwise, he might have stayed all night.
Bedford was an easy two hours on the turnpike, the other side of the Allegheny Mountains. The man who Mrs. Richards (the woman’s name) wanted him to find was employed at the Bedford Springs Hotel. He was a desk clerk. Kip checked his notes against the gold-plated nametag on the man’s shirt pocket.
“Peter Keller?” he asked.
“Good afternoon, sir,” he said. “Are you checking in?”
Kip explained why he was there.
“This is a surprise,” the man said. He asked if Kip could wait until he got a break. Kip walked around waiting for three o’clock. He talked to the spa attendants who explained that Mondays were slow and that guests tended not to have services in the early afternoon. They told him he could rent a towel and a bathing suit and soak in the pool. “It’s superheated. Over 100 degrees,” they told him. “It’s got special powers to heal anything.”
The gumshoes of the past were impatient men. They did not waste time. They spoke in short, clipped sentences preferring one-word responses and never spoke about their troubles.
They would not have soaked in medicinal hot springs while waiting for a client to finish his shift. But Kip did. The waters were relaxing, perhaps even medicinal.
Peter did not seem to want to talk about Kim Richards or the past. He was proud of the hotel and offered to give Kip a tour. “This place was empty for fifty years, and now they brought it back to look exactly like it did a century ago.” Kip, not wanting to be rude, followed the man to the second floor. “I’ve got a master key to all the guest rooms, even the bridal suites.”
The man opened a room at the end of a long hallway.
“This is the room that everyone says is haunted,” he told Kip. “There’s a ghost. They say someone killed himself in this room and that he’s come back to get his revenge on those who did him wrong.”
The spring waters had made Kip sleepy. He could have stretched out on one of the big double beds and slept. He was on assignment.
“Mrs. Richards wants to know if you want to see her,” Kip said.
“Why?” Peter asked.
“I’m not exactly sure,” Kip said. “I think she’s lonely. Maybe she misses her youth.”
“I mean why now? Because my wife died?”
Kip could report back that the man was not married. That might make Mrs. Richards happy.
“She didn’t say. She only wanted to know if you would be willing to see her.”
The man was inspecting the room, opening the closet, checking behind the shower curtain. It was hard to tell if he was looking for ghosts or simply checking on the cleaning staff. He pulled a dark blue sock from under the bed and stuck it in his pocket.
“I don’t know why she thought she had to send you,” Peter asked. “Why doesn’t she just come back?”
Kip had wondered the same thing.
Kip, not one to believe in the supernatural, felt a cold blast of air move across his shoulders. He looked up and saw the ceiling fan spinning overhead, the wrong season for moving air about, but perhaps it was done to keep out the musky smell of an old hotel.
“Did you see something?”
His grandmother had believed in ghosts, and he always thought her silly.
“But you can feel it?”
“Not really,” Kip said, but it wasn’t true. The air in the room or maybe this man, the situation felt heavy and strange. He felt it like an omen telling him to leave.
“Me neither,” Peter said.
“You must be the only one in the world who doesn’t believe,” the man said. “The maids won’t clean in here anymore. They’re spooked.”
It was getting late. Kip wanted to get on the road or at least he wanted to get the drive over with. “So what should I tell her?”
“I don’t want to see her,” Peter said.
“You don’t?” Kip asked. That was a surprise.
“Look at me,” Peter said. He was using the room card key as a piece of dental floss, pulling it between his teeth. “We were together a few times thirty years ago, “ Peter said. “What’s she going to want with me now? I’m a desk clerk at a hotel a mile down the road from where we grew up. I haven’t done anything with my life. What’s she going to want with me? “
“Maybe you should ask her,” Kip said.
“She was married to a doctor. Rich. I’m sure she’s used to a bit of class. Me, I’m still the same old Peter. I don’t want her to see what I’ve become. What I haven’t become.”
Kip’s first thought was to tell him that Kim Richards wasn’t any better than he was, that she had married a doctor, but she had also been divorced by that doctor. She seemed a lonely woman who wanted to connect to a time when someone had loved her. He was not there to counsel the man. He had not been hired to change anyone’s mind.
“All right,” Kip said. He stood and passed him his card. “If you change your mind,” he said.
“I won’t,” Peter said.
The private investigators of the old days did not get involved in personal problems, but all of Kip’s cases were personal. Crime seemed to have gone out of fashion in his world. It did not seem ready for a comeback.
He got back to Pittsburgh after midnight. The streets were packed with the weekend bar crowd, all who seemed to start screaming the minute they started drinking. Kip had to park a few blocks from his apartment. He walked past the plaque commemorating the birthplace of Stephen Foster, Lawrenceville’s most famous son unless you counted Johnny Unitas, whose own plaque was directly across the street, claiming that this was the house where he had been raised. The coincidence seemed more convenient than historically accurate. But it wasn’t like the neighborhood attracted busloads of tourists or anyone interested in history for that matter.
“Hey, you.” Someone was shouting from down the street. “Listen, you fucker, I’m talking to you.”
Kip turned around. “What do you want?”
It was a guy everyone called Bob the Builder coming at him. The guy worked for one of the beer companies in town and delivered cases to the bars and restaurants in the city. He was a beefy, short guy, never without his Pittsburgh Steeler’s cap.
Bob struggled to get his breath as if he had been running for a long time, not all of that was chasing down Kip who had only just got out of the car. “You keep away from her,” he finally managed.
“Keep away?” Kip said. Bob the Builder wouldn’t have any reason to come after him. They knew each other to say hello but nothing more.
“That blonde,” he said. “That Polly girl.”
“No more questions,” Bob said. “Whatever she wants from you, you don’t do it. Do you understand?” He pushed his body against Kip’s, forcing him against the brick wall. Kip never liked fighting. He had never been the strongest and gave up his fear to anyone who threatened him.
The guy must have been changing beer kegs at the Brew Pub that afternoon when he ran into Polly. “Were you listening to our conversation?”
“Leave it alone, will you?” the guy said. The guy pushed him against the wall again. He was very good at using his body weight to make his point.
“Why do you care?” Kip asked.
He was less than a block from his house, but he didn’t want the guy following him home.
“She doesn’t need to know who her father is,” the guy said.
Kip might not have been the best detective in the world. But he wasn’t an idiot.
“No way,” Kip said. Poor Polly.
The guy told him to fuck off.
“I don’t believe it,” Kip said. But he should not have been surprised. One of his friends called Pittsburgh Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood because you could not go fifteen feet before running into someone who knew you.
“You don’t know anything,” Bob said.
“You’re her father?” Kip said. “You are, aren’t you?”
“I said shut it,” the man said.
“Does she know?” Kip asked.
“And neither do you,” he said. Whoever he was, he was the loudest person Kip had ever met.
“Dead man walking,” Bob said. “That’s what you are.”
“You’re going to kill me if I tell her?” Kip asked.
“Try me. You’ll be sorry. You’ll be really sorry.” The guy shifted his belt, pulling up his pants with one hand, the other he held out as if to block Kip from moving.
“You hear me?”
“What do you think?” Kip asked. “You’re shouting in my face.”
“You’ll be sorry, just you wait and see,” the man said. ”You tell anyone, and you’ll wish you had never had a mouth let alone opened it.”
Kip didn’t have to wait; he already was.
Polly wouldn’t want this guy for her father. He was a clown, something not quite right in his head. He lived in the house on the corner of Butler and 41st with his mother, the house he had grown up in. He was the neighborhood mascot; the guy who drove a truck and everyone wondered how he had ever passed his driver’s test. He hung out at Gooski’s, a dive bar leftover, the years of the working steel mills. He got wasted most every night. For laughs, the other patrons would ply the jukebox with quarters and play Barbara Ann by the Beach Boys. Bob called it his anthem. He’d unbutton his dirty shirt, jump up on the bar and jiggle the fat rolls of his stomach to the music. No one would want him as their father.
Kip thought about his mother. She had four children, but every time she got depressed or any time things were things weren’t going well she blamed it on the miscarriage she had two years before Kip was born. She had lost the baby before the third trimester. It was sad. He did not begrudge her that. She had lost something she had thought she was going to love. But she would not let go of it. She let it define her because she could remember her tragedy anyway she wanted to – somehow the mother of a dead baby was more important to her than being the mother of four kids. She could blame everything that went wrong in her life on that single loss.
Kip came home a few nights later, to find Polly sitting on his front steps.
“Are you following me again?” Kip asked.
She nodded. “You weren’t in any of your usual spots today.”
“I’ve been working,”
“Another one of those snotty, rich women?”
“Something like that,” Kip said. He had not wanted to see her and had avoided getting in touch.
Polly had brought her dog, Elmo. As soon as Kip came close, it started barking. Nothing would quiet it, especially not Polly shouting at him.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Polly said. “It’s the only thing that shuts him up.”
The walked down to the Allegheny and followed the rocky path along the river.
“So?” Polly asked. “What did you find?”
“Maybe it’s not such a good idea to find your father.”
“What does that mean? “ she asked.
“What I said. I’m not sure it’s a good idea,” Kip said. Elmo followed behind Kip, thrusting his snout in between Kip’s legs. He pushed the dog away.
“Why do you care?” she said.
“Because I do,” he said.
“It’s not really your fucking business, is it?” She had never been this mean before.
Kip picked up a stick and tossed it towards the ducks on the river. “Go, Elmo, ” he said.
“He can’t swim,” Polly said.
“He’ll be fine,” he said, but thought, it might be better if the dog did drown. It wasn’t a life to have your face up someone’s behind.
Polly stopped walking. “Why are you being such a shit?” she asked.
“Tell me why it’s so important.” He sat on the flat rocks near the river’s edge. The dog was still chasing the ducks but had stopped barking.
“Because it is,” she said. “I need this information.”
He said nothing. The silence worked.
“I want to have a baby,” she said.
“A baby?” He had not been expected that.
“You know what those are, don’t you?” she said.
It was the reason most women went searching for their birth parents. They were afraid to procreate without knowing where or who they had come from.
“Are you with someone?” he asked.
“You know I am,” she said.
“I don’t want to have a baby without knowing who my father is,” she said. “You understand that, don’t you? I have to know the truth.”
It was not true. It was the last thing anyone wanted. They only wanted what they thought was the truth, what they hoped was the truth. Dashiell Hammet had pleaded the Fifth Amendment when questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee; the blacklist had ruined his life, but still, he said he would have had more regrets saying anything. Kip knew this to be true. He said nothing. “Go ahead,” he said. “Have the baby.”
She grabbed his wrist with both hands and twisted, giving him an Indian burn. He did not pull away. Elmo barked. The ducks were long gone. “You know who it is.”
He said nothing.
“I can’t live not knowing,” Polly said. It wasn’t true, but it was what his clients believed. It was their creed – they said they couldn’t go on without knowing the facts, they couldn’t have babies without knowing their father or their mothers – all of it s aid with such firm conviction, and none of it was t rue. Knowing didn’t change anything.
“Bob,” Kip said. He did not know the man’s real name. “Bob – the Builder. He’s your father.”
“You heard me.”
She put her fingers to her ears like she was twelve and didn’t want to hear the middle school gossip.
“Oh come on,” she said. “That can’t be right.”
“It is. Bob. That’s who you’re looking for.”
She asked for proof. She wanted DNA. She wanted something in writing.
“I want someone else. I want someone better than Bob, the fucking builder.”
“This isn’t a game,” Kip said. “You don’t get to choose.”
“I don’t want that freak to be my father. I don’t want my mother to have slept with someone like him.” Polly was yelling now.
The regret descended on him quickly. He should not have said anything.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“You’re sorry?” she said. “A lot of good that’s going to do me.”
Kip could feel the tangled web of her disappointment and knew the only thing he could do was to step out of it. “Forget him. What happened, happened. Go find some happiness in the future.”
“Right,” Polly said. “Like I can do that knowing that asshole is my father?”
It was unfortunate news. Whatever she had been thinking about her father, whatever dreams she had had of him, Bob the Builder was not part of that fantasy. She was crying and trying not to let him see her tears. He had never meant to make her this unhappy.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll tell you the real story?”
Spit shot out of her mouth. “What?”
“In Bedford,” he said. “The hotel there. The one they just renovated.”
“Are you messing with me?”
“Some of my clients want privacy.”
“So you lied?”
“Just listen,” Kip said. “Go to the Bedford Springs Hotel. Ask for Peter at the front desk. That’s where he works.”
Polly was stubborn. “And who is he supposed to be?”
“He’s your father.”
“What about that Bob guy?”
“Never mind him. Just forgot all that. Go see Peter,” Kip said. “You’ll like him. He’s got a big heart.”
Peter, all his talk about the ghost in the hotel room, he was just lonely. Like all of Kip’s clients.
“He’s a lot like you,” Kip said. If she went, she would see the man’s earnestness; she would see that he had holes in his heart – places that should have been filled with love. Polly was the same way.
Polly stopped crying. “Really? Is he?”
“Yes,” Kip said.
“So why did you say other stuff?”
“It’s hard to explain,” he said. He searched for an excuse. He had none. In the end, it didn’t matter.
She didn’t wait for him to go on, she didn’t wait for him to tell his side of things. She punched him. In the mouth. A full fist to the lower part of his face. He felt his teeth move into his nose cavity. A few seconds later, he tasted blood.
The private eye of the techno age was getting very tired. And then the private eye from Lawrenceville was set up. He had been warned but had not listened. Polly must have said something and Bob the Builder must have found out. He must have blamed Kip too. A few days after the fight with Polly, Bob took his revenge on Kip. Just has he had threatened he would.
The police estimated the break-in at the Penn Brew Pub happened before dawn on a Thursday morning. Three police cars and six policemen were called to the Pub.
The alarm was broken. The thief or thieves busted down the back door with a crowbar.
There was no cash. That had been deposited after the night shift. They stole beer. Thirty-four cases of beer, which mysteriously showed up on Kip’s back porch. There was a note attached to the top case. I TOLD YOU TO SHUT YOUR MOUTH!
The police came to Kip’s house acting on a tip from an anonymous phone call to the neighborhood station.
Kip had just come outside for his morning coffee and discovered the cases of beer and the note. He knew immediately who had delivered the trouble to his place.
“I was set up,” Kip said.
The cops thought his excuses more than lame; one asked if he was making a joke. “With beer?” they asked. “Someone set you up with beer. Show him to me. I’d like to meet him.”
“I know who it was,” Kip said.
“So do we.”
“I know who really did it,” he said. He showed them the note, which they passed around with no concern for the perpetrator’s fingerprints.
“You didn’t even bother to hide the beer,” they said when they arrested him.
“What would I do with thirty-four cases of beer?” Kip asked.
“Nothing now,” the police said.
He tried to explain. The judge listened, asking a few questions but the doubt in the courtroom was palatable.
“You don’t believe me?” Kip asked.
“Evidence shows otherwise,” the judge said.
“I’m telling you the truth,” Kip said.
“Everyone is always telling me the truth,” the judge said. “One day I want someone to come here and tell me nothing but lies. “
Kip gave up. They would believe what they wanted. He had never been good at convincing people otherwise.
The gumshoe was gone.
Off the street and in prison. He was sentenced to 6 months in a minimum security place in West Virginia, exactly where Dashiell Hammett had served his time.
It reminded Kip of summer camp. The food was horrible, and he lost fifteen pounds in the first few weeks. There was a library but very few books. He read them all: Jaws, Valley of the Dolls, and A Wrinkle in Time — four or five times. He went to the gym every morning, and when he was bored, he went back in the afternoon. He thought about the future.
When he got back to Pittsburgh, he was going to close down the detective agency. No more looking for things. He was going to do something new. Something that belonged to him.
Him and the brand new 21st century.
Sharon Dilworth is the author of two collections of short stories, The Long White and Women Drinking Benedictine and a novel, Year of the Ginkgo. She is the recipient of the Iowa Award in Short Fiction a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Grant as well as a Pushcart Prize in Fiction. A professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, her novel, My Riviera, is forthcoming in 2017.