The town had a name that he couldn’t remember if he’d just read it, but Byron remembered the look of it, set in the deep valley between ragged, ominous mountains capped with snow and looming terribly in whatever direction you looked. The town looked forgotten, not empty like a ghost town but frozen in a time long past as if it were in a snow globe, tiny and picaresque at a distance, but always meant to be separated from the rest of the world. The only road that led there was long and it wound itself about the mountains so thoroughly that it became hard to keep your sense of direction, as if your compass pointed nowhere at all.
You knew you were nearing the town because the asphalt disappeared, simply faded into a dirt road, though the path was still clear, as if the asphalt layers and simply decided that this was simply as far as they were prepared to go. The town itself had cobblestone streets and small, cottage homes with wrought iron fences and flower gardens that seemed uniformly overgrown, with reds that seemed so much like blood they were vicious and greens and browns that never sent less than a feeling of uncleanliness running over your flesh.
The town streets were narrow, no more than a car and a bicycle could ride comfortably side by side, but they were always empty so it didn’t matter. The people of this little town with a forgotten name walked everywhere, shuffling, slightly hunched, head always down so they never met eye-to-eye. They never spoke in public, did not exchange quiet pleasantries, did no more than grunt in acknowledgement if two men met each others gaze by accident or happened to brush shoulders.
In the privacy of their homes, perhaps they waxed loquacious on philosophy and art, perhaps the shared, furtively, the local gossip that spreads like plague over small towns else, perhaps they all sat in silence still, never meeting each others gaze, even as they ate dinner, as they celebrated holidays, as they made love, but Byron was never given the chance to experience much of their private life, so he could only imagine the silence.
Byron remembers, as he approached the town, the way the sun seemed to disappear behind the mountains and the clouds grew thick and heavy and grey, though it never rained while he was there. They just hung in the sky so that from dawn until dusk it was impossible to tell what time it was, exactly or approximately, and stranger still, Byron never saw a single clock. Not a wrist watch or a pocket watch or a clock on the wall or the swinging pendulum of a grandfather clock, chiming out the hours. The only mark of the passage of an hour was the bell in the tower of the church that rang once on the hour every hour all day long, and thrice at noon and midnight. It rang twelve times to mark the beginning of their worship service. Attendance appeared mandatory.
Byron read the letter he had received again as he approached the town. He held it in his fingers, flat against the center of his steering wheel, glancing between it and the road in front of him. Because of this, he was startled when the asphalt disappeared and the road turn to dirt and the tiny, two-door roadster he was so very proud of began bouncing wildly on the suddenly uneven earth. The letter was from one Virginia Welles, wife of Howard Welles, apparently something of a patriarch of the town, who had died recently of a heart-attack, leaving his affairs in a bit of a mess.
The letter stated that the newly widowed Mrs. Welles wanted someone to look into a matter of personal interest to the family, the letter implied the existence of an illegitimate child, someone not connected to the town or the people therein for reasons of privacy. How she had gotten his mailing address Byron didn’t know. His business was generally conducted in person or over the phone, and yet three days prior he had discovered a handwritten letter, in very precise script, deposited in his mailbox between a sheaf of advertisements and coupons and the electric bill. The letter asked him to come in person at his earliest convenience. He would have written the whole thing off, had it not included a check for a sizeable retainer. The electric bill did need to be paid.
The letter also included fairly specific directions to the homeof Mrs. Howard Welles. It was on these directions that Byron focused.
Byron tossed the letter down on to the passenger seat and depressed the cigarette lighter in his dash. According to the letter, he didn’t have much farther to go. A restless anxiety had already set over him during the long drive and he was looking forward to getting out and stretching his legs.
The cigarette lighter popped up and he propped a cigarette into his mouth and pressed the lighter to the end and inhaled the acrid smoke. Byron had picked up the habit of smoking harsh, unfiltered cigarettes he purchased from an angry, Russian immigrant who ran a small stand near his apartment.
The letter was right. Byron hadn’t yet finished his cigarette before he arrived at the home of Virginia Welles.
Towering over the nearby cottages, the manor that the late Mr. Welles lived in was something of a miniature castle, walls of cyclopean stonework with vines creeping up from all sides, wrought-iron spires and stained glass windows depicting horrifying images of souls burning in the inferno, a sense of menace and foreboding permeating the unkempt grounds.
Byron parked his vehicle in front of the large gate and walked through, finding the gate rusted, unlocked, and ajar. His heavy boots crunched the dead leaves the littered the cracked stone walkway, weeds having pushed through from below, stretched to the sky, dried up and died long before Byron had arrived. The entire building smelled mildly of moss and decay. He tossed his cigarette butt to the ground and stamped it out quickly, grinding it to the stone, for fear of setting off a fire.
There was a door-knocker made of thick iron waiting for him against the arched doors. The knocker was a ring held in the mouth of a lion, but Byron felt there was something odd when he first saw this knocker, and he couldn’t quite place it until much later, deciding that the lion, rather than looking fearsome, looked terrified, it’s mouth open not in a roar but in an exclamation of surprise and horror, as if it had seen some predator approaching that it could not comprehend. Byron knocked the ring against the metal plate three times and heard the sound fall flat against his ears, lacking any echo at all.
Soon enough, a small, wiry figure in an old-fashioned butler’s uniform appeared at the door, slightly crooked with age and with deep lines running all about his blank expression. The butler said nothing, merely stared at the man at the door.
Byron presented his card. “Byron Grayce here to see Mrs. Virginia Welles. My presence was requested.”
The butler looked once at the card and nodded but did not take it. He began shuffling away without a word, but he left the door open, so Byron took this as a cue, replaced his card in his wallet, and followed the aging butler into the house, shutting the large door behind him with a loud creek that Byron had not noticed when the door had been opened, and the door shut with a thud that Byron could feel in his chest.
“It is good to see you, Mr. Grayce. I was beginning to feel some concern that my letter had not reached you or that you had chosen not to come.”
When he first saw her, Byron was struck with the idea that she had been a silent movie star. Virginia Welles walked about with an exaggerated grace and did not stand still but pose, like a living statue in a flowing, sequined gown that would have appeared more appropriate in a ballroom than the bedroom she actually stood in. When she spoke, her hands gesticulate with unnecessary, full body movement, as though what she said didn’t matter nearly as much as how she made herself understood. As far as Byron could see, she did not have any trouble making herself understood. Byron was simply following the curves.
“Yes, well, Mrs. Welles, I nearly didn’t come. I don’t generally make house-calls, and if it were for your rather generous retainer, I very likely would have thrown your letter away. As it stands, here I am.”
“Yes,” she said, and her voice was husky and dark, “here you are.”
The stood in silence for a few moments, watching each other with hawks eyes and coiled tension filling the room. Byron coughed, finally, to break the silence. Something felt off.
“Well, Mrs. Welles, perhaps we can get down to business? What exactly do you want me to do?”
She smiled, Byron imagined that it was intended to be sweet but didn’t feel any sweetness coming off of it, and she stepped over to the desk in the middle of the room and she flicked on a small desk lamp and she grabbed a manila envelope and she gestured for Byron to take it but made no move to approach him. As he took it from her hand, she said, “My husband was murdered. I want you to find out why.”
If Mrs. Welles meant for this to shock the private investigator, Byron was having none of it. His features registered no change. He calmly took a seat in front of the desk, in a densely-cushioned, red-leather chair, and opened the envelope he had been handed.
“That is not what your letter implied you were concerned with, Mrs. Welles.”
She took her own seat behind the desk. “Yes, I do apologize for the deception, Mr. Grayce. May I call you Byron?”
“Let’s just keep it to Mr. Grayce for now, Mrs. Welles. I do not like being lied to.”
Her eyes flashed at this, but quickly reverted to her attempt at sweetness and joviality. She bent her head forward obsequiously. “Certainly, certainly, Mr. Grayce. I sincerely apologize again. It was a necessary deception, though. I am uncertain who I can trust in this wretched little town, only that I certainly can’t trust the authorities, and I could not put anything in the letter of my suspicions for fear of the letter being read by others.”
Byron said nothing, just continued flipping through the papers in his hands. They consisted of a series of medical reports and biographical information on the life of Howard Welles.
Virginia continued, undaunted by Byron’s silence, “And so I made intimations in my letter of an illegitimate heir I wished to keep hushed up, something not altogether unlikely considering the life my husband lead, in the hopes that in your investigations, you can fall back on that story as the lie you are covering up. I am desperate to keep my suspicions quiet until I have the information with which to combat them.”
“Yes. Them. Though I don’t know who they are.”
Finally, Byron looked up from the papers in his hand. “Let me make sure I’m clear on this. You lied to me about why I’m here. Then you tell me I’m to look into a murder, the very suspicion of which you feel threatens your life, because of some shadowy cabal that you believe exists and which murdered your husband for some unknown reason.”
She sighed, quietly. “‘Shadowy cabal’ were your words.”
“But I got the gist of it, yeah?”
“Yes, Mr. Grayce. You covered the salient points. Should I assume that you are not interested in the position?”
“No, I never said that Mrs. Welles. But you will need to get your checkbook out. And I will need to know everything you know. And no more fucking lies, Mrs. Welles. Are we clear?”
She smiled then, and for the first time Byron believed it. Money was something she understood well. “Yes, Mr. Grayce. Perfectly clear.”
She knew surprisingly little, considering how widely her suspicions seemed to run. The only worthwhile information she gave him was that her husband had been working on something in secret, at least from her, and in the past few weeks had become increasingly furtive in his habits. She assumed that his death and something to do with what he was working on. She assumed whatever he was working on was valuable. Money, Byron figured, was as good a reason as any to kill, so he started there, in the late Mr. Welles’ office.
The office itself was fairly large, but sparsely furnished, and what was there did not match the grandeur of the rest of the estate. Byron decided that Mr. Welles had not been the one to pick the furniture in the rest of the house. There was an oak desk, big and heavy but without ornamentation. A leather chair sat behind it, tall backed and deeply cushioned. Behind the chair was a wall of metal filing cabinets. No paintings adorned the other walls, and the sliding glass door leading into what should have been a backyard garden had no curtains.
It didn’t take long to search. There wasn’t anything to find.
Mr. Welles’ office was immaculate, which wasn’t out of accord with the rest of the manor, but Byron had the sense that it was cleaner than it should be. The keys on the keyboard at the desk appeared to have been cleaned individually. The file cabinets were locked, appropriately, but when he opened them with the key Mrs. Welles had given him he found them to contain nothing of interest at all. Old tax forms and receipts, bank statements and paid bills and accounting ledgers of the household finances. The records were meticulous, though, and went back more than a decade, but there was nothing to show that Howard Welles had been doing any kind of work at all. At least not in his office. And the cabinets were marked where Byron had touched them, small smudged fingerprints on the metal, and no where else.
The private investigator muttered to himself under his breath in the middle of the room, looking around him, trying to take in the whole room at once. He couldn’t decide if the room had been professionally ransacked and cleaned, or if his employer’s suspicions were leading him to see evidence in the lack of evidence. Byron went back to the filing cabinet and pulled out the financial records from the previous two years, bound them with a large rubber-band he found in the desk. The bundle was at least eight-inches thick. Byron sighed. Scouring finances was a tedious task and he hated it.
Leaving the office with the papers in hand, he found the aging butler waiting for him. Saying nothing, the nearly decrepit old man turned and began walking away. Byron took his cue once more and followed the old man. He was led to a small guest room, near the office, as far from the master suite as one could get in the home. Inside, he found signs that a man had been staying there. A book on the night stand. Newly changed sheets. Suits and shirts hung in the closet and shoes on the floor.
“Do the Welles’ have a boarder that I should know about?”
The butler said nothing.
Byron nodded. So, Mr. Welles had been sleeping separate from his wife, and by the look of the room, it had been that way for quite some time at least. An idle thought wandered towards Mrs. Welles and why she didn’t think to mention this, but it was quickly killed by the greater truth that Byron did not trust her at all, so wouldn’t have listened to her anyway.
Turning back to the butler, Byron said, “Thank you. Now, I’ll need a hotel room. Would you direct me?”
Byron poured himself another drink from the mini-bar. Expense accounts were one of the few joys of working in his field. The ice clinked against the sides of the glass as he dropped three cubes into the coffee mug, the only cup he could find, and stirred the whiskey and ice together with his finger to cool the drink. He took it back to the bed where he had spread out the financial records of his client’s late husband.
His client’s financials were like clockwork constructions, with little to no deviation from month to month. Fifty-five dollars in groceries every Wednesday. Two hundred dollars every other Sunday to their church, some such order. For two years, every Friday evening the couple had gone to the same restaurant and ordered the same meal, right up until two days before Howard Welles had died. Byron couldn’t imagine a more boring life.
Five months ago, though, Howard Welles had begun making a cash withdrawal on the first of the month for 1100 dollars. Byron was willing to bet that this was also right about the time that Mr. Welles had moved his things from the master bedroom. Byron tossed back the rest of his drink.
He picked up the phone in his room and called the front desk. He asked the attendant for the address to the bank as well as the police station. The attendant told him to hold on in an impatient tone and then rattled off two addresses in quick succession when he returned, not bothering to even say which was which. While Byron scribbled them down quickly onto a pad of paper, the attendant hung up before Byron could say anything else.
Looking at his watch, Byron noticed that it was nearly midnight. The time had slipped away from him. He moved the papers to the desk next to the bed, the degraded wooden desk too small to be useful to anyone, even to sit at and eat the presumably disgusting continental breakfast the motel offered, and tossed his pants over the back of the cheap desk chair. He didn’t bother getting under the covers of the bed, just passed out on his stomach atop them.
Byron immediately sensed that there was something wrong when he woke up. He used to be a fairly light sleeper, but he’d taken increasingly to drink since he’d left the police force many years prior, and find himself following more often in a restless black slumber like that one he had just crawled himself out of. He blinked wildly, the dull morning light blanketing his head through the open window curtains. It took him longer than it should have to realize that he had not opened the curtains the night before. He silently cursed himself and slowly sat up in bed. Across the room from him was a tall man with a gun pointed in his direction. The tall man was watching him with a bemused smirk.
The tall man wore an elegantly cut three-piece suit that looked about thirty-years too late to be fashionable, and a matching grey fedora held at a rakish tilt. He would have looked handsome threatening Humphrey Bogart on film, but he had dark, menacing eyes that betrayed a vicious characteristic inherent in his soul and his bemused smirk was the smirk of a mountain lion watching a rabbit try to put up a fight. Byron hadn’t gotten a clear look at the gun, but he hadn’t seen a silencer, so didn’t figure that the tall man in the grey suit was intending on killing him just yet.
Byron threw his legs over the side of the bed, with his back to the window, and put his head in his hands. “Who the fuck are you,” he questioned with a growl.
The tall man’s voice had the tenor of a car salesman, slick and slimy all at once. “A concerned citizen of our fair little town. What did the widow Welles want from you?”
The lie came easily enough to Byron. “She wants her insurance check. I’m a claims investigator with American Life, Inc. Any claim with a value greater than a million dollars has to be verified by me or one of my colleagues.”
The tall man laughed. The sound was like spiders crawling on Byron’s skin. “Let’s pretend I believe that, buddy. Got any proof?”
Byron nodded towards his suit jacket. “My papers are in there. Mind if I put my pants on first?”
When the tall man nodded, Byron grabbed his pants off the back of the desk chair with his left hand and with his right grabbed the chair and flung it with all his strength at the tall man in the grey suit with the gun. The room was too small for the tall man to have any time to get out of the way. He just threw up his arms as the cheap wood chair shattered against him, and then he cried out in pain as Byron’s shoulder slammed into his stomach knocking him to the ground. The tall man wasn’t an amateur, though, and almost as the two of them hit the ground the tall man struck Byron in the head with the butt of his gun.
The blow wasn’t strong enough to knock Byron out, but it gave him a bit of a shock, and he rolled out of the way of the second blow. Byron grabbed a leg of the broken chair and struck out at the tall man’s outstretched hand beginning to take aim with the gun. The wooden leg caught the tall man on the top of the wrist and he dropped the gun. Byron, an experienced scrapper, had scrambled on top of the man and struck him twice more in the head with the wooden leg before it broke again. The tall man shoved him off and scrambled to his feet.
Byron kicked the gun away as the tall man reached for it and then took a kick to the shoulder. He rolled with the impact of the blow and grabbed the bed and pulled himself to the feet. The tall man was moving for the gun again and he’d turned his back to Byron to grab at it. Byron leapt on his back and pinched the tall man’s throat between his forearms and began applying a fierce pressure. The tall man struggled in vain as his air was cut off. Byron let up as he felt the tall man go limp under him and quickly grabbed the gun. Byron struck the tall man a massive blow to the back of the head with the butt of the pistol.
When the tall man stirred awake again, he found himself expertly tied up with rope and duct tape and lying down on his side in the bath tub. Byron slapped him on the cheek a couple of times lightly.
“Found this stuff in a bag you must have brought with you. Thanks for that. Came in handy.”
All the amusement had left the now battered face of the tall man, but the man didn’t say anything.
Byron continued. “Couldn’t find any ID on you. Didn’t find anything on you, actually. You’ve even got the tags on your suit cut out, spook-style. Did find a hood, a car battery and some cables in the bag with the rope and the duct tape, though. Looks like you had some plans for me, huh?” Byron waited. “No, nothing to say? Didn’t think so. Luckily for you, I don’t really have a stomach for torture. I’ll have to keep you here, of course, for the moment at least. You understand.”
Byron ripped off some duct tape from the roll and slapped it over the tall man’s mouth. Then he slipped the black hood he’d found over the tall man’s head. Byron stood up and shut the door to the bathroom. He grabbed his suit jacket off the chair and slipped into it. He put the tall man’s pistol in his jacket pocket and picked up the pad of paper with the addresses on it. He hung a Do Not Disturb sign on the motel room door as he left.