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Fiction #11
(published Late in the Year, 2000)
The Inspector After the Death of the Great Detective
by Fritz Swanson

When my children ask me what has happened, I just ruffle their hair with my fingers; turn them away, toward their toys by the fire. They stare at me in the evenings as I smoke my pipe, read my journals, scratch at the dog's ears.

"What has happened?"

"Nothing, my sweetlings. Nothing." I smile tightly to them, gesturing them away with my pipe stem.

And when I pull the sheet up to my chin at night my wife rolls toward me and we look into each other's eyes. We know what has happened. But we do not speak of it.

"How was your day, Arthur?"

"Fine. Yours?"

"Fine. Elizabeth has started to write poetry."


"That is just what I said."


We kiss. We roll away to our sides of the bed, each staring out at the walls. I cannot sleep, and I can tell that my wife is not sleeping either. We breathe and we each struggle alone quietly in the black of night.

Manard sells me coffee and a croissant in the morning. He places the change in my hand one coin at a time, never taking his gaze from my eyes.

The shoe shine boys scatter as I stalk the streets, breaking away in clean arcs like a flock of starlings detonated by the dive of a hawk. Aberline, the grocer, scowls.

The school mistress spreads her cloak and shooshes her skittering brood away from my path.

My shoes click along the cobbled walk, and the emptiness of the city, the hollowness, brings up a rising echo.

"How are you this morning, Inspector?"

"Fine, Netley. I am fine." I sip my coffee and brush past him. We stand then on either side of the threshold to my office and I look upon his crater eyes. His sunken cheeks. His long, pulled neck—a gawky boy. Scotland Yard sent him along as soon as they heard the news. His eyes, like wells, reflect the city back at me and, though I actually like the boy despite myself, I cannot bear looking at him. He is a death's-head.

I close the door before he can speak another word.

Later that day, I gather up Netley from his narrow desk and we go out onto the street.

The Great Detective's apartment echoes like the inside of a wet drum now that he is gone. Mr. Hu, his man-servant, met Netley and I at the door, but now has drifted away into the shadows of the kitchenette where I hear tea beginning to whistle a tinny tune.

The cramped parlor looms about, narrow but high-walled. On an ottoman in the middle of the room there are piles of manuscript pages tied with black ribbons into small bundles. A burnt candle lays across the pile, rolling back and forth in a breeze that cuts across the room from the window. To the right of the door is a long oak buffet covered in the glittering spires of the Detective's alchemical glassware. Erlenmeyer flasks, beakers, gradient cylinders, distillery apparatus, test tubes, slides.

I am awash in the still air as it mixes with a wind off of the Thames. I feel dizzy, and the tea whistle grows louder as Netley picks through the papers, shuffling and shuffling. By the window, in the shadow cast by the heavy velvet drapes, is the Detective's crimson wing-backed chair. And behind the chair, draped in a silk paisley cloth is a large domed cage as tall as Netley and as wide as a doorway.

I slip across the room, my hand brushing the silk aside.

Timothy, the Raven, quorks angrily and beats about the cage. His feathers are bushed out into a hood about his head, and his legs have puffed out like the black silk pants of a Turk. He nips at the air, the inside of his mouth a bloody pink, his eyes the most terrible shade of melancholy and rage.

Timothy pulls at the cage with his talons. He clicks his beak and pulls hard at his own feathers. I see that he has already bloodied his own breast.

"Shhhhhhh?." I say, reaching for the door of the cage. Timothy's wings flutter and beat in the small dome and the wind of his wailing washes over my face and eyes.

Mr. Hu comes out of the kitchen, finally, bearing a silver service and the fine scent of Jasmine. He stops short to look at me and Timothy.

I snake my hands into the cage and wrap the bleating bird in my palms, stroking him and clucking soothingly with my tongue. I clutch the bird to the breast of my coat and he looks up into my eyes.

"Quork?" He breathes.

"Shhhhh. Yes. Shhhhhh." And I pull him close. He locks my gaze to his and bows a little to the left, and then to the right, his eyes remaining fixed on my own. I repeat the moves, bow my head to the left, to the right, and we both raise our heads together, and then lower them. We are caught in a ritual of sorrow, plucked from the petty moment by a larger sense of the hollow that surrounds us both.

The silver service slips from Hu's grasp and rattles on the floor. A thick stain of black tea spreads out across the crimson and gold Persian rug, and Timothy flaps down to peck at the shreds of wet leaves.

Mr. Hu turns away and the yellow silk of his robe spins open, then snaps back around his legs. His shoulders shudder as Timothy hops around the ruins of the tea, quorking and cawing, as meaningless a series of sounds as I have ever heard.

I slip out of the apartment ahead of Netley, my heart racing, and I take the street in strides. I am flushed, up around my ears, and I am carrying my hat, and as I glide through the halls to the station I can feel the still air move through me, and papers flutter up off of desks and my door rattles as I push into my own office, and clouds fill the sky through the window and a gloom has filled the room.

The coffee has gone cold and thick. It is well past noon and the sun streams through the window into my office, the uneven bubbles and density of the glazing scattering a thousand rainbows across the fiery yellow oak of the desk. I sit hunched away from the light. I have not yet removed my coat. I read the reports. Again and again. I examine the diagrams, the photographs, the statements of neighbors and witnesses and passersby. Friends, there were few. No family. Only a list of enemies that I have compiled myself from memory. My name at the top. The list goes on for fourteen pages.

I am covered in a cold sweat when twilight grips me and I find that I have been sleeping and that the thick, cold coffee has spilled across the files. My hand is covered in coffee and the print of my hand has rescued only seven names on the list of enemies. My name remains, but that is hardly surprising as it was the first, the largest, the most clearly written, the press of the pen almost cutting through the paper as I have inscribed the letters over and over and over, with great care. The file is a loss, except for the photographs. A bullet in the cheek. A bullet in the hand. His cane in the street, broken, and his scarf caught in the twining spires of a wrought iron fence so that his body is held up an inch above the walk. Did the scarf catch when he fell, or did the killer do this?

It is all meaningless to me.

"Nothing," I hiss.

Netley knocks at the door.

"Yes?" I whisper.

He opens it and peers in.

"A man was slain down by the docks."

I turn back to the photographs and all of the papers soaked in black.

"Inspector? Did you hear me, sir? Are you alright, Inspector."

"Do not call me that."

"Inspector. There has been a murder." He steps into the office, shutting the door behind him.

"No. There has not." I hold the photographs up in the fading light, letting the glare pass through, the images decomposing into shadows, mist.

"Excuse me, Inspector?"

"There will be no more murders, I think." I lean back in my chair and place the photograph over my face. I close my eyes. I feel sleep in the air, like a cloud.

"Inspector?" Netley is very close, but I refuse to accept him or his eyes.

"The business of murder is done, Netley. Now go away."

In the twilight of the city, there is the sense of dogs at the ends of their chains, and of hawks without hoods, roaming the streets, gliding, slicing through the air. The lane to my townhouse has been entirely cleared of street vendors and casual pedestrians.

I hand my hat and my coat to my wife at the door. She inspects the coffee stain on the right sleeve, but says nothing. My chin has risen, my eyes turned to the ceiling, to the top of the stairs, to the mirror on the landing which because of the angle reflects nothing but a black and impenetrable corner somewhere inside.

In my dream the hawks have descended upon the city, and the dogs have broken their chains, and the gaslight has flickered yellow, exposing teeth and talons and beaks and glittering eyes.

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