I wanted to have a little bit of fun this week. You, enlightened reader, have heard about William Gillette’s curtain raiser play, The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes, because you wouldn’t dare miss a PLoSH post, right?
I am a serious fan of both Sherlock Holmes and the hard boiled genre of mystery fiction (which you also know because you’ve read the many columns I’ve written on both subjects…). Since Painful Predicament.. is a parody of Holmes, I decided to write a parody of a hard boiled private eye short, using Gillette’s mini-play as the model. So, I give you “Shovel’s Painful Predicament.”
I sat in my office, watching dust motes dance in the sunlight. The slats were pulled halfway, and they made a regular pattern on the floor. Unfortunately, this was the most action the office had seen in a week. Being a shamus in this town meant dry spells in jobs, not just the weather. The phone wasn’t ringing, but I wasn’t all that certain I’d paid the bill, either. I wouldn’t need an armored truck if I withdrew my bank account. Hell, I wouldn’t even need a wallet.
I heard tentative footsteps in the hallway. It sounded as if their maker was reading the doors, looking for the right one. They stopped in front of mine. I stayed behind my desk and waited. Someone pounded on the door and it rattled on its hinges. I grunted an “It’s open” in surprise. I hoped the hinges remembered how to work.
A short blonde pushed open the door. She came in and sat down in the battered chair directly across the desk. She was pushing forty, and it was pushing back at her just as hard. I’d say that she was on the heavy side, but I couldn’t see that there was any other side. Her hair was pulled back sharply. My first impression was that she was wound pretty tight and needed to relax a bit. I’m not always correct, but I hit this one right on the kisser.
She fiddled a little with her big handbag as she sat down. I waited without saying anything.
“Mister Shovel, I need your help. A man is pursuing me. I’m afraid he’s going to kill me.” She said this in a voice filled with woe and I pegged this one as a drama queen.
“And what makes you think that, miss…?” I let the question hang, since she hadn’t introduced herself yet.
“Bovine. Cilla Bovine. You can call me Cilla.” She held out a meaty hand which I took.
“Now, Miss Bovine, tell me who this person is.”
She batted her eyes demurely. It had about as much effect on me as a picture of W.C. Fields. “This man, Jonathon Werndell, is obsessed with me. He follows me to work, writes me letters and calls me on the telephone. He just keeps saying that he’s in love with me, and if he can’t have me, no one can.”
I stared at her levelly. She was definitely playing the helpless card. It’s not one I would expect to be in her deck. “Can I see these letters?”
“Why, no. I throw them away as soon as they arrive. I’m quite terrified of him. I didn’t want them around me.”
Just like a scatterbrained dame. She gets rid of the evidence. “It would be helpful if you keep any more letters that you get and bring them to me.”
She seemed uncertain. “Yes, of course. That’s such a smart thing to do. But I haven’t received a letter in about a week. He’s been calling instead. Yes, he’s been calling me. Most frightening.”
“Uh-huh.” I leaned back in my chair. This one was hiding something. She definitely wasn’t on the square with me, but there was nothing I could hang my hat on just yet. “Have you met this man?”
She looked pensive. With every passing minute, I became certain she was playing a game.
“Yes. We were at a ‘book of the month club’ meeting at Murdock’s Bookstore. That’s where we met. We got to talking, and we seemed to hit it off rather well. We went out to a movie and dinner. But then he kept bothering me. Every day he would call me or send a letter. I became frightened and stopped answering the phone. I didn’t write him back.”
“Yeah. What happened then?”
“One day, he followed me to work. I don’t have a car, so I take the bus. I looked up and he was sitting there, looking out the window. I avoided eye contact and rushed into my building.”
“I see. Where do you work, Miss Bovine?”
“I’m a teller at First Bank of California.”
“Has he ever come inside the bank?”
She looked thoughtful. Judging by her expression, it was a painful process. “No, I don’t think so. At least, I’ve never noticed him in there.”
I decided to wrap this up. I wasn’t going to get anything useful out of her. I thought about turning her away, but I needed the dough. “What is it you would like me to do?”
“Why, tell him to leave me alone. I don’t want anything to do with the man. He’s scaring me.”
She was almost simpering. I had to hold back a sigh. “Do you know where he lives or works?”
“Yes, I wrote down his home address for you.”
I took the piece of paper. It was in a middle of-the-road neighborhood on the east side of town. It didn’t tell me much. I figured I’d swing over in the evening and ask him nicely to lay off of the broad. I couldn’t see what he had for her, but it takes all kinds.
I gave her my cost, which was twenty a day, plus expenses. She laid twenty ones out on my desk, thanking me about one time for every dollar she gave me. When she was finished, she looked at me with a soft smile. For a moment I thought I was sitting across from a jersey cow. I kept a neutral expression and assured her I would get started on the matter right away.
Telling me that she’d check in tomorrow, she got up and wobbled out the door on her high heels. She must have had pretty good balance to keep that much weight upright on those things.
As the door closed and I heard her footsteps fade away, I started to fill my pipe with tobacco. What a screwy broad. This one didn’t quite have all the electric circuits plugged in. But it looked like an easy job, and I certainly didn’t have anything else going on. Sometimes I’m not too bright.
About 7:30, I drove my coupe to Wendell’s house. It was a small job, in need of a coat of paint. There was a Ford jalopy, on the downward side of the hill, sitting at the curb. As I stepped up to the front door, I heard a radio inside. This was shaping up good. Maybe I was going to catch a break on this one. I was certainly due.
I don’t know why I listen to myself.
The door opened a few seconds after I knocked. A skinny, dark-haired guy answered. He had thinning hair, and not much of it at that. He wore a clean t-shirt and had a cigarette in his left hand. His expression was of mild suspicion. I held out a card and said “Mister Wendell?”
He took it, read the name, and looked up at me. I could see that it made no impression. It usually doesn’t. “What?” The way he said it, the word actually sneered at me.
“Do you know a Miss Cilla Bovine?”
He took a step back and suddenly I was facing a small pistol.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said, putting both my hands up, palms facing him. “Take it easy.”
He was so nervous I thought that the gun was going to start shooting by itself. “I already warned her to stay away from me. Now get back in your car and get out of here. If I see you again I’ll plug you like a drain.”
This guy had some serious emotional issues. Once I judged that I wasn’t going to get shot, I thought about his words. “I’m a private eye. She hired me to ask you to leave her alone. Has she been bothering you?”
A crooked grin came across his face. The gun lowered some. If he shot it now I’d be a one-kneed gumshoe.
”Me leave HER alone? What did she tell you?”
I put my hands down to my side and took a shuffle step backwards. “That you have been following her, writing letters, generally hassling her.”
Now he actually laughed. “That crazy cow has been chasing me for weeks. The security guard at the plant has orders not to let her past the front desk. She lives in a fantasy world. I ran into her in a bookstore and she started after me.”
“Can you describe her for me?”
He did. There was no doubt we were talking about the same woman. He put the gun away. “Sorry to draw on you. But she is out of her mind. I have no idea what she is going to do next, so you worried me. I’m thinking of getting the police to pick her up.”
I smiled myself this time. “I knew there was something more going on, but she didn’t give me enough to figure it out. Did she write you any letters?”
“Yeah, freaky poetry.”
“Could I see them?”
“Nah, I threw them away. I didn’t want to keep anything about her.”
I shook my head. Good lord, was everybody out to destroy evidence?
“So, no evidence of anything at all?”
He gave me an even stare. “Have you met her?”
I nodded. He smiled a little. “Do you think I’d be chasing her? Don’t you think it’s just a little more likely that she’s been bothering me?” He simply looked at me.
He had me there. I suspected that Freud himself couldn’t straighten Miss Bovine out. “Good point. I think I’ve taken up enough of your time. Thanks.”
“Be careful,” he added as I was walking away. “She’s not all there upstairs. Don’t let your guard down.”
I waved my acknowledgement and got in my car. Being a detective was not a career choice that I would necessarily make again.
I went home and drank myself to sleep. It seemed like the best way to end the day.
My office phone rang a little after ten. To my complete lack of surprise, it was Cilla Bovine following up. I told her that there had been some very interesting developments and asked her to stop by at 2:30. She giggled like the snorting of a buffalo. Imagine that.
As soon as I hung up, I made another call. “Yeah, Dunleavy, how are you? Can you come over at 2:00 today? I’m gonna have a live one in the office and I think you’ll want to pick her up. Great, see you then.”
I hung up and thought about taking a belt. But I wanted to have a clear head for my afternoon meeting. A grilled cheese sandwich was called for, so I took an early, and long, lunch.
The thumping in the hallway at 2:15 told me that my client was early. That was fine: I was ready. She sat down across from me and stared into my face. “Did you find that horrible man and force him to leave me alone?”
I imagine that she thought it was a helpless, feminine voice. It had all the restraint of a foghorn.
“Well, sort of. I did see Wendell. Seemed to be a level-headed bloke.”
Her face scrunched up. She was either taken off guard or was having digestive problems. “I can imagine how he might strike someone that way. He’s very sincere, but completely obsessive. I think he may have mental problems.”
Somebody surely was. There was a knock at my door. I called “Come in” as Miss Bovine turned and looked over her large shoulder.
A very thin man with spectacles entered the office. There were two young, beefy guys behind him in white suits. “Doctor Dunleavy, do you know Miss Bovine here?”
The woman looked like a deer in the headlights: a very large deer.
“Yes, I do. Her name is June Ryan. She slipped out of the asylum a couple weeks ago. Come along Miss Ryan. We’ll get you home now.” The two men moved forward to help her out of the room.
She turned to me. “This is surely just a simple misunderstanding, Mister Shovel. I’ll be back to finish our conversation once I get it all straightened out.” The two men herded her into the hall.
Dunleavy lingered behind. “How did you know she was one of mine, Shovel?”
“This one was way off her rocker. If she wasn’t from the asylum, she should have been. Her grip on reality was about as firm as a soup sandwich.
You can read Bob Byrne’s ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column here at Black Gate every Monday morning.
His “The Adventure of the Parson’s Son” is included in the largest collection of new Sherlock Holmes stories ever published.