[This story was originally published in issue #14 of Poor Mojo's Almanac(k), in late 2000.]
Pirout looked at his watch, then at the wall clock, then at his watch again. 8:02 pm or 8:05 pm? Which was it? How could you know—really for-sure know—which of two clocks was righter? Or, uh, more right.
Round beads of thick, fat-man sweat stood out on Pirout's temples and bulbous nose, poised to run down to his thick jowls. He surveyed the room: Sitting across from him in a stick-backed chair was Elizabeth O'Conner, the niece of the deceased. To her left, her brother Samuel sat on a dark blue divan with his wife, whose name Pirout could not recall, except for that it sounded like a kind of flower. Or maybe a kind of exotic infection. Something, at any rate. These three were the heirs of the late Jeanine O'Conner's estate—an estate valued at any undisclosed amount of money which included no less than 9 zeros.
To the left of Samuel and his wife was the late Ms. O'Conner's butler of 48 years. Pirout couldn't remember his name, either, but he looked remarkably like a greyhound. To the butler's left was the spinster's gardener of 57 years, Mike Something. He'd been old when he was hired on just after W.W.II—was, in fact, a casualty of W.W.I—and was now ancient. He quietly dozed in his chair, the empty left sleeve of his denim workshirt swaying in the intermittent breeze from the central air. It was this codger, Mike Whatever, who had found the body four days ago. To his left was the deceased's Chef, then her nurse, then Pirout.
"Detective Pirout—" Elizabeth began. She had a soft southern drawl which smoothed her words, the way waves smooth shards glass into satiny translucent pebbles.
"Shh," he admonished. To his immediate left sat the late O'Conner's tax attorney, then her astrologer, her allergist, the man who cleaned her pool and her plumber—who was also named "Pirout", although he was no relation to George Pirout.
In the middle of the room, of course, was Ms. Jeanine O'Conner herself.
Pirout, who had learned a couple of things in his years with the Kisckonoset PD, had not disturbed the scene at all, although the pool of foul water had dried of its own accord in the intervening days, and the cats had wandered quite a bit, as one would guess.
17 murders had been committed in Kisckonoset since 1836, and each had been solved. The first, the brutal slaying of a minister's daughter, was unraveled by a Frenchman named Dupin. The next two (a strangulation & a venomous snake bite) were solved by an English vacationer named Holmes and his assistant, a doctor of some sort. Then there was a Belgian (apparent suicide), then a Chinese detective in a bowler (another strangling), then a whole string of hardboiled sharps through the '30s and '40s (cut & dry murders all motivated by ornate greed). There had also been a spunky, elderly woman; an ex-ballplayer and former Navy-man in Hawaiian togs; a cowboy named County; two men named Simon. There was a boy—EB— whose parents vacationed on the Cape—he'd later gone on to be an erotic dancer of some repute, or so Pirout had heard. Then here was a man with a glass eye and a ratty trench coat, an elderly attorney with a gentle smile, a team of mercenaries in a black van, four kids with a talking dog (these are in no particular order.) All arrived only when they were needed, all worked for free, and then disappeared. It was as though they had noses for mystery, or some dark vendetta against unknowing. Perhaps mystery had killed their fathers.
But always, always the mysteries were solved. A corpse turned up and, not 20 minutes later, a masterful and driven detective turned up too, low on gas, or needing a horse re-shod or sipping cafe au lait in a local bistro.
Always, always, always. Mysteries were always solved in Kisckonoset, always solved by a brilliant, self-effacing outsider, someone who rode into town like a cowboy, set the chaos and confusion to rights, and then disappeared after a good meal, a few pithy remarks and a brief, yet detailed, denouement. Leaving only the proverbial silver bullet behind as a calling card.
This was the way things worked, for god's sake.
In his 30 years on the force Detective George Pirout had risen steadily through the ranks of the Kisckonoset Police Department, largely owing to his unique ability to stand next to these luminaries, listen carefully, and boldly step forward as the representative of local authority, filer of paperwork, zipper of body bags, caller of coroners.
He sat, stared at the elderly corpse, the dingy circle left by the evaporated water, the sacks of flour, the counterfeit Faberge eggs, the copper tubing and the vast, terrifying ivy plants which slowly crept about the room. It all meant something; he ardently believed this. All these pieces, the thousands of foot prints, the cats—hundreds of them, twinning among the table legs and plink-plunking through the baby-grand's innards—Jeanine O'Conner had never owned cats; the ancient table-top radio which turned off and on of its own accord, playing broadcasts from yesteryear, as though it were muddling its way through late-stage Alzheimer's; the missing Codex; the weeping ferns; the frozen whirlwind of papers hanging in the air in front of the fireplace filled with shards of broken crockery. Of course, the doors were locked from the inside when the scene was first spied by Mike Something, locked as they were now.
It all meant something, all fit together into a neat, 10-minute package which put all the unsettling questions to bed. Pirout knew it must.
"Detective," Samuel began, standing, " I really must be going—"
"Sit!" Pirout barked, "There are, um, motives. To be . . . deducted—deduced, deduced. No one leaves. Answers will present their, uh, selves. Yes."
Columbo wold have seen it, as would Hannibal or Velma. Even Watson, he was sure, and Shaggy, maybe. Why couldn't he?
Pirout stared at the clock, then his watch, then the clock. 12:13 am or 12:10 am?
"I attended a play once," Elizabeth O'Conner began, apropos of nothing, "by this Italian fellow—can't recall the name, something with a 'P' I think. It was called 6 Characters in Search of a Story, or something similar." She starred past Pirout's shoulder, out the window, into the night.
Has she gone mad, Pirout wondered. What the hell is she talking about? And then he thought of Columbo, his seemingly out-of-left-field monologues that, at the 11th hour, always took a sharp deductive turn. He leaned forward. "Yeah?"
"These characters, they've come unbound from the play their supposed to be in—"
Pirout was on the edge of his seat; Guide me he prayed show me what the pieces are, where the go. Be my Jessica, my Velma, my Columbo
"—and their sorta wandering, adrift—"
my Magnum PI
"—looking for a framework to be in. Like as though characters are just cogs in a great story-machine, and loose from their machine—well, far from being liberated, they're just useless, meaningless."
my Fallguy, my MacGyver
"Have you ever seen a sprocket or a gear, just setting on a table, Mr. Pirout?"
Be my Al "What? Yes, yeah. Sure." Be the Holmes I'm not. Be the Pirout I'm not.
"Always takes a moment, doesn't it, to figure out what it is? Like looking at a puzzle piece out of context."
"Ma'am, what are you getting at?"
She continued to stare past Pirout's shoulder, out the window. "Nothing, really. I knew this artist once, back when I was in California. He used to do these pieces-"
Pieces! Pirout's nerves sang, Listen! She'll explain! She'll piece together the pieces
"Tiny things, just yeh big—" she held up her hand, thumb and index-finger just an inch apart —"the edges all round and lobed, like pieces from a jigsaw puzzle."
"There'd be just a few slashes of color on each one, the hint of the final picture. They'd show him in this gallery, a huge gallery in San Francisco—two floors, with maybe 2 dozen of his pieces hung. Each 'piece' was just that: a single, solitary puzzle piece, hung all on its lonesome on a big expanse of wall. And, in his whole career, he'd never painted two pieces to the same puzzle."
Elizabeth's hand was still raised, fingers calipered an inch apart. She shifted her gaze from the window to Pirout, eye-balling him through her poised fingers. "Have you ever seen a thing like that, Mr. Pirout? A square yard of perfect, eggshell-white wall paint, perfectly, evenly, brightly lit, and stranded in the very middle, one solitary piece to a puzzle, a piece which has no mates, which quite possibly cannot be part of a recognizable big picture?"
The sweat coursed down Pirout's face, racing among his jowls like a W.W.I trench-runner, "No."
Elizabeth's gaze shifted back to the window. "It's the most awful thing you'll ever see, Mr. Pirout. Be thankful you've never left Cape Cod."
She looked back at Pirout, into him, through him. One of the cats nuzzled against her calf, ducking under her skirt's hem. "We're in a whole different world now, Detective. There aren't answers anymore." She held him in her gaze a moment longer—she might have been appraising him, but probably wasn't—and then her eyes shifted back to the window.
Pirout craned around to look through the window himself. It was a moonless night, and the estate sat far back into the woods. The window, backed in black, was a basaltic mirror, and showed him nothing but his own reflection.
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