Having completed NaNoWriMo ’10, I’m going to share one section of my story here every Friday until you’ve read the whole thing. Hooray for easy update days! Enjoy.
It was twenty-two dollars, but it might as well have been twenty-two thousand.
Jocelyn was really proud of that sign, too. Her name done all up in fancy type, it was more than she could have asked for. The previous sign had said “Sal’s Barber Shop”, and it had taken her the better part of an afternoon to tear it down. That sign had been old and ragged, with a hole punched into the L, the colors so faded you could hardly look at them and tell they’d been colors. An hour or more of tugging and straining, working away at stripped screws and bent nails, and it finally came down – only to reveal a second sign underneath, painted directly on the brick: “Sal’s Barber Shop”.
The whole point of taking the sign down was because Jocelyn couldn’t operate her detective business behind a sign that declared her to be a barber shop. She didn’t know what she would have done if someone had come in asking for a haircut. She briefly considered hiring on an assistant named Sal, just so the sign wouldn’t be a total lie, but wasn’t confident she could find anyone whose salary would fit her budget. She wouldn’t have had any work to hand off to an assistant, anyway. It would have just been the two of them sitting there in her dark office, apologizing to people and explaining that they didn’t know how to cut hair.
Most people would have been upset after having spent a whole day taking down a sign, only to find an older and uglier one underneath. Not Jocelyn. As she was whitewashing the brick the next afternoon all she could think about was how proud Sal must have been, when he finally put up his sign.
Her sign was white, with yellow letters. “Jocelyn Beauregard, Private Eye”. She’d paid for it by taking on a job from a circus who was trying to prove their Siamese twins were really two skinny men wearing three-legged pants. She followed the men around for four days, hiding around corners and ducking behind parked cars, before she finally got a clear shot of them in their shorts on laundry day. She felt bad, of course, taking a job like that… but every detective has to start somewhere.
The skinny men got to travel with the circus that season after all, as it turns out. One was an accomplished fire-eater, and the other one could swallow a hatpin and pull it back out through his nose.
Anyway, she was proud of the sign, is the point. It was difficult to hang up, too. Danny helped, some, by bringing his tools around, and then standing out in the street to make sure it looked straight. Danny thought it was maybe a bit too big; it hung across top of the two long windows of Jocelyn’s basement office. He started to say something about how it hung a few inches over on each side, covering a few bricks of the floral boutique on the left and the haberdasher’s on the right, but Jocelyn was too busy beaming at her accomplishment to take it to heart.
“One thing’s for sure,” Danny had said, taking a big puff on his cigar, “ain’t nobody can say that ain’t a detective’s office.”
It was absolutely true. It was definitely a landmark accomplishment in Jocelyn’s short career. It’d costed her every penny she had, and she’d have nothing to eat but bologna and soup crackers for a month, but she had made it, by gum. And that was something.
The next day she was fined twenty-two dollars for violation of city ordinance 64.72b, paragraph eight, to wit: it is unlawful for a business’s sign to be placed on a wall not owned or leased by that business. Jocelyn would have to pay twenty-two dollars in fines every day until the sign was removed. She found the notice folded up and tucked under her door knocker. Dated, stamped and signed by Officer Max Barrett.
So that’s why Jocelyn had spent the whole morning sitting in the 23rd precinct, periodically being glared at by the hook-nosed receptionist. This was very obviously a big misunderstanding, and if she explained that to Officer Max in person everything would be cleared up, no problem. She saw Officer Max every day while she was out and about, but official business had to be taken care of… officially. That’s how Jocelyn felt, anyway.
Jocelyn passed the time by taking in the details of the 23rd precinct. It was much louder than she expected: ringing phones, doors constantly being opened and closed, the dull roar of a dozen conversations. The floor was hard, slick tile comprised of black and white cheques, plus the dinginess of a thousand pairs of boots. One of the legs of the receptionist’s desk was propped up with half of a phone book. The receptionist was very slowly making her way through a magazine. The nameplate on her desk was crooked, and read “Betty Sue Laurence”.
Every time the receptionist took a call, she put the caller on hold for about thirty seconds before patching them through. Jocelyn decided that was rather rude, but didn’t say anything about it.
“I’m sorry, honey, who are you waiting for again?” the receptionist asked her, after an hour had gone by. She was looking at Jocelyn over the top of her triangle-shaped glasses.
“Officer Max, ma’am. I need to talk to him about—“
“Give that here,” the receptionist said, motioning to the notice in Jocelyn’s hands. “If you hold that any tighter, you’ll make the ink run.”
Only after it was pointed out to her did Jocelyn realize she’d been tightly wringing the notice in her hands. “Yes, of course,” she said, and unfolded the notice as she crossed the room, flattening the crumples and creases as best she could.
“City ordinance… violation of… improperly place sign?” The receptionist looked up with wide eyes. “Where exactly did you put it?”
“Oh, just outside my window. It has my name in big, yellow letters.” Jocelyn was very much not conscious of the fact that she was beginning to beam again. “This is just a misunderstanding, I’m sure Officer Max will be able to clear things up as soon as I talk to him about it. Do you know when he’s expected back? I’ve been waiting a while now, and—“
“Oh honey,” said the receptionist, handing the notice back to Jocelyn and picking up her magazine. “I thought I mentioned, today is Max’s day off. He won’t be in. Someone else walks his beat on Wednesdays and Thursdays.”
“But… but when I first came in and asked you—“
“Oh, you can’t talk to me before I’ve had my fourth cup of coffee, honey. I’m not even half awake until nine. Honestly, I thought you were in here selling something. Anyway, Max is back in tomorrow morning.”
“Sorry, honey.” It wasn’t an apology as much as a dismissal. The receptionist was back in her magazine, and Jocelyn had wasted her morning. Worse, by tomorrow morning the fine will have grown to forty-four dollars.
It might as well have been forty-four thousand.
On the walk back to the office, Jocelyn’s head was zipping around with possible solutions. Ingenuity, that’s what this situation called for. Removing the sign wasn’t the problem; it’s what could be done about its length. She couldn’t very well just ask Danny to hack off the edges. Who would hire a detective named “ocelyn Bouregar”? Perhaps if the sign were re-hung at an angle she could fit the edges within the outside boundaries of her office, but then it would be partially covering the door, and people would bang their heads on it coming inside.
There was nothing for it; a new sign would have to be made. They’d just have to figure out a way to squeeze the letters closer together. Jocelyn suddenly found herself wishing she’d had a shorter name. That’s one major advantage Sal’s sign had had over hers; Sal is short, easy to say, easy to remember. Sal had had enough room for his name and a spinning barber shop pole.
“Some people just have all the luck,” Jocelyn was forced to conclude as she arrived back at her basement office on 13th Street. She stood on the sidewalk and looked at her building. She thought forlornly about all the people who would walk by tomorrow, and have no idea it was a detective’s office. With nothing but a white brick wall advertising it, it could really be anything.
“Maybe the problem will solve itself,” she thought. All she needed was a case, and she could afford to take care of the fine and the sign replacement… give or take another month of soup crackers. These sorts of things had a way of working themselves out, after all. She went down the stairs, stepped gingerly around the little puddle of water that had spilled from the gutter and into the landing, unlocked the door and went inside.
The office was home, for now. It was always dark, too, even during daylight; people walking by on the sidewalk outside would cast constantly shifting shadows in through the basement windows. A single, bare bulb illuminated the front room. Boxes were stacked everywhere, leftover remnants from Jocelyn’s recent move. The space consisted of an icebox in one corner, a water closet in another, and in the back a tiny storage closet with just enough space for a cot. A curvy black case with silver clasps was tucked away underneath the cot, along with a book entitled The Ukulele and You. Next to the front door sat a dish of milk, whose owner was nowhere to be seen. The dingy little room was paid up through the end of the month, which was the best Jocelyn could ask for right now.
On her desk was a large, leather-bound appointment book. Today’s itinerary was empty, except for one line: “8 a.m., meet w/Off. Max @ precinct.” Jocelyn dutifully crossed it out. She hated having to abbreviate so much. It would have been so much nicer to spell out the words “with” and “officer” and “at”. But there was no time for such trivialities in her line of work. Busy, busy, busy. Or, at least, that’s what she imagined it’d be like if she could actually get her phone to ring. Jocelyn preferred not to look at her light caseload as a downside. Rather, she looked at it as an opportunity to practice for what it would be like when she was much busier. For example, she’d had to walk down to the library in order to research the proper abbreviation for “officer”.
Underneath her appointment book was a worn business card with Ted Holdren’s phone number. Jocelyn wrinkled her nose at it. She hadn’t wanted to call Ted again so soon. He actually was always busy, she knew. Too busy to take low-scale jobs like the circus case, at least. Jocelyn was always happy to have the work, but the whole point of putting up this sign was supposed to be that she wouldn’t need Ted’s business card anymore.
But her options were limited. If she didn’t eat her pride now, she’d be eating nothing but soup crackers well on into next year.
Ted’s new secretary Tammy answered the phone. Jocelyn had never actually met Tammy, so the only details she had about her were a shrill, nasally voice and the constant sound of popping gum. When trying to picture Tammy, the only image Jocelyn could conjure up was a scratchy face on a blackboard, blowing pink bubbles.
“Good morning, Tammy. It’s Jocelyn. Jocelyn Beauregard, down on 13th. Is Ted in right now? … No, not Jacqueline. Jocelyn. … Yes, we’ve spoken before, on occasion. … No, that’s no trouble, I can hold.”
While waiting for Ted to pick up, Jocelyn busied herself with working the kinks out of her telephone cord. No matter how careful she was with it, there always seemed to be more kinks.
“Ted! Hi, yes, it’s Jocelyn. You know, on 13th? … Oh, you’ve seen it? Yes, it’s quite fetching. I think it’ll really help business. … Well, of course that’s always best, but– … Well, listen, Ted, actually, that’s what I called you about. Something’s, ah, come up. Do you think you might have something for me? Anything you weren’t able to take on this week? … No, I know we just– … No, it wasn’t a ‘clown thing’, he’s a fire-eater now. It all worked out wonderfully. … I, well, I would Ted, it’s just this just kind of fell into my lap out of nowhere, and– … Yes, of course. I understand. … Sure, go ahead.”
She was on hold again. With any luck Ted had turned away a jilted husband who couldn’t afford his rates, or a farmer from out of town trying to catch a chicken thief. Ted was too high-profile to take chicken thief jobs. That had been another thing Jocelyn was concerned about: once she was as established and successful as Ted Holdren, would she have the heart to turn down chicken thief jobs? It didn’t seem right, to her.
Jocelyn was so quickly and violently jolted out of her thoughts that the only reason she didn’t fall backwards out of her chair was her fingers being tangled up in the telephone cord. It took her a moment to register exactly what had jolted her: a very loud sound from the other end of the line. She wasn’t experienced enough with crashing noises to tell if a piano had fallen through the roof or if Ted’s entire building had just been dynamited.
“Ted? Hello? Are you still there?”
If she stayed very quiet, Jocelyn could just barely make out voices. One was Tammy’s unmistakable shriek; the other could have been anyone. There was no way to be sure. Everything she could hear was muted and indistinct. Then, suddenly, nothing. The phone went completely dead.
Jocelyn redialed, but when the operator told her the connection wouldn’t go through she quickly grabbed her pen and started scrawling down absolutely everything she had heard. Or thought she had heard. Papers rustling, she remembered that for sure. Footsteps, too, although that might have been on her end. There was a police siren, which wasn’t unusual, but she notated it anyway. And the voices. Had there been three? Or four?
After deciding she was satisfied with her, notes, Jocelyn placed a second call. This time, the voice on the other side was friendly and familiar. “Hi, Rita? Jocelyn. Listen, can you radio Danny and tell him to come around? … Yes, it’s urgent. … No, just tell him I have a case.”