Abelard Winchester Coventry Mystery Series
The Superfluous Book
I had another half-hour to kill before the client scheduled a knock on the door of the smartest man in Proper, and loyal leg man or not I was bored at my little desk and I wanted someone else to know it. Coventry, at his rather grander desk, finished his third newspaper, scoffed at the world, and took up the inventory reports of his apocalypse bunker. He was right on his daily schedule.
‘Boss, I’m bored. I think I’ll hit the Stairmaster for a few-“
‘You labored on that machine this morning for six minutes past an hour.’ Abelard Winchester Coventry, registered genius, kept his eyes on his work but wasn’t done with me. ‘Exercise is excellent for the brain and the heart, but further waste of calories would be Sisyphean, not to mention vain.’
‘No doubt. But keeping this chair from floating into the ceiling fan isn’t stimulating my mind.’ Plus, beach season was on it’s way and I had a little number that allowed no mystery, but I didn’t think that argument would hold any of Coventry’s water because he was a prude so I demurred. ‘So, I’ll just pop up stairs and…’
‘You finished your crossword?’
‘Yeah.’ I waited, then made a face and said, half keeping the inner child sarcasm to a minimum, “Yes.’
‘You finished it entire?’
‘I’m finished with it, yes.’ Silence. ‘Fine, I couldn’t break into the bottom left hand side at all, and only half finished the other bottom half. If we had the internet then—‘
’We would have an electron miasma poisoning our synapses. 60 Down is “Trousseau”.’ He spelled it for me, and given that hint I had to get back to work. Bastard didn’t even write in the answers, he just looked at the crossword for a few minutes before I cut it out. Yes, vain displays are Sisyphean.
I like to think that the Coventry home is a study in contrasts when I admit clients. Their reactions to shifts reveal a thing or two about their mental states. My procedure was wasted on Francine Able, but I used it anyway. A short woman, early forties, and buttoned up and prim from shoes to boring hair. She dressed like she was on her way to beg to a banker. She took one look at my jeans, black T-shirt, and dark strained red hair just touching my shoulders and she made a face to say “a terrible mistake must have been made because we both occupy the same space.” I get a different face when I usher male clients.
I tacked her down as a mean Sunday school teacher, and dismissed her accordingly. Then I smiled and ushered her through the sunlight drenched yet barren hallway to the dark, brooding private office of the boss. He kept the lights dimmer than most would like in their office, except for a few wall lamps highlighting various doodads he liked to stare at from time to time. One of the doodads was an early, discarded page of the draft of the Declaration of Independence he got from a former Supreme Court Justice whose wife was a doper. That case was before my time.
‘Missus Able, sir.’ I showed her to a chair more comfortable than mine, watched her sit, then took a flanking position at my desk. My standing orders at this point is to look, listen, and disappear until spoken to.
‘You are Abelard Coventry, correct? I am in the right place?’ Her voice was stronger than I would have suspected. I’d expect it to be hoarse from yelling at small children about Hell I guess, but then the boss tells me that I’m too impatient for any critical thinking analysis more time-consuming than prejudice so what do I know? Also I’m still not used to the southern accent. It still feels like an act, like an amateur theater group playing Gone With the Wind, but damn it these people actually talk like this. Weird creatures, but we went to a Hell of a lot of trouble to conquer them in the Civil War, so we’re stuck.
‘Yes, madam, I am Abelard Winchester Coventry, for good or ill, and this is my dogsbody, Fallon Bridle. Her tongue is vulgar and lacking in grace, but it’s discrete. You wish to hire my services, but I’m, ha, afraid your letter was as vague as shadow in a trench.’
‘Yes. Well.’ She clutched her blue purse/bag to her blue clad chest and I wondered if she had a breathing device in it hooked to her lungs because the color of her 19th Century modesty-conscience getup hurt even my throat, and I was all the way behind my desk and out of harms way. ‘I suppose I must tell you everything?’
‘First you must tell me what you want. The issue define, hopefully, we can omit the necessity of universal cogitation.’ She took the boss rather well. Most people assumed he was making fun of them, which wasn’t fair because he was just mean, not mocking. However, I think Francine Able was more embarrassed than nonplus.
‘Well, my husband has a number of a photographs, five, and I want them.’ Oh really?
‘I shall presume you have asked him directly for these photographs.’
‘Don’t. I haven’t in ten years.’
‘You are separated?’
‘No, of course not!’
‘Well, madam, I fear you may be asking omniscience of me after all.’ She cleared her throat. Here it came. ‘My husband is Dr. Perry Able, dean of Falcon Head Preparatory Academy, and we have been married for twenty years last month. He is a very cautious man, and I’m afraid some early experiences, before we met, soured him on the whole idea of trusting women.’
‘Not unwise.’ Dogsbody or not, someday I’m going to kick him.
‘Hmph. Well, then you understand, and I suppose you will think he has some… some… psychological disorder. I’ve been told that before, by experts.’
‘I reject psychologists, at least expert psychologists, but I accept the terms of the school if used under a named dictionary. However, I suggest, for the interest of my time, you make yourself plain using whichever language you are most comfortable with, if not English.’
I’ve seen this before. Anger helps people get over their embarrassment long enough to spill it. However, boss doesn’t infuriate potential clients for this reason. Or any reason that I can detect, but then again I’m not a detective. I’m a dogsbody.
‘Well, as a deposit of my trust, I allowed my then fiancé to take pictures me in compromising positions in a context that… doesn’t speak well of my propriety. Do I need to detail them?’
‘I will charge you extra if it is necessary.’
‘Well, he took them, and hid them from me, and now I want them.’
‘Do you--no. Why do you want them now, after 20 years of marital bliss?’
‘Because he’s a fool to still doubt me. He was been nothing but kind to me, and I love him and he loves me back, and we have created and raised three perfect children that I love more than I can say, and I want those Goddamn pictures and I will pay to get them.’
‘After I remove the pictures, your husband will notice them missing and your tranquil union will be jeopardized.’ I like the lack of “if” in that sentence. ‘Pretend reason, madam. To what purpose do you wish these pictures?’
‘To give them back to him, of course.’
‘Of course. I shall need a written contract, dated, and a retainer adequate to fill the final bill; otherwise these pictures could give this job the patina of blackmail to the causal observer. I suspect a period of three days effort. That is expensive.’
I walked Missus Able out. She gave me one last disapproving look, then thanked me like people thank their dentists and was off to whack children with rulers or cluck her tongue at married adults holding hands in public. I heard Coventry banging about in the kitchen, as glaring and sparse an enclosure as the hallway, so I slipped off my shoes and padded on my bare feet to the kitchen’s sill just to annoy him. Plenty of brilliant men thought my feet were cute. This genius thought my feet allowed me the art of autokinesis. I leaned against the wall and crossed my arms over my lower class T-shirt.
‘I don’t think she likes me.’
‘She no doubt considers you a harlot. Not without reason: her subconscious very likely saw the two artificial holes in your ears made with blades for the purpose of pagan adornment.’
‘Hmpf. Check adequate?’
‘Ample. The woman has no talent for business. That she has no training should be obvious.’
‘Spotted right off when I saw that her shoes fit. Speaking of business, I assume you wont be leaving your abode for this job.’
‘This afternoon I shall be reading a transcript of a recent talk on economics and disease in Africa by Emily Oster. It came in the mail while you climbed a nonexistent mountain in the comfort of my home. The female is an ecstatic thinker, but she can think, so I shall require solitude to check her work. I wont require a woman scampering underfoot to distract me. Later, I must solve the solar panel problem for that fool in Arizona. His check cleared. Non-goat herders in Arizona are invariably trustworthy.’
‘Who would want a woman underfoot? I’ll arrange with the client for a good time to get into the house. I figure we should get the servants out so they don’t gossip about a nubile, breathtaking young lady like me in too tight jeans noising around the Master’s chambers. I can find these pictures in your three days of effort.’
‘No need. The pictures are in the dean’s office of the preposterously named Falcon Head Preparatory Academy.’ He mixed an ice sauce, from scratch, with the force some people use to murder.
I turned my head to get some of my hair out of my eyes. ‘How do you figure?’
‘A tale of wife searching for photographs, in her own home, for twenty years—and not finding them? Claptrap. Wives are as good at sniffing as bloodhounds. There is only one qualitative difference between female humans and dogs.’ He opened the oven, sniffed, then closed it. ‘This trout resists. Remind me not to patron this fisherman again. He has bad luck. For a female of status to grow so desperate as to relay her graceless tale to two strangers means that she has checked all paper trails, so no safety deposit boxes. No banks, no post offices. Besides, such a man with the credentials to govern such a privileged school, forsaking riches, would no doubt amuse himself with pictures of his wife in his sanctum sanctorum after giving a lecture on morality to an errant student. I suspect he is a graduate of Harvard. The institute attracts the wealth of students blissfully free of reality when they pretend to think.’
‘Yeah, a bunch of dummies. So what’s the plan?’
‘You will contact your patron, Miss Feinstein, and-‘
‘She’s not my patron.’
‘You will contact Miss Feinstein, whatever she is, as she is ideally placed in their society, and she will enroll you tomorrow at the Academy as her hopelessly rebellious niece that has been expunged from institute after institute. That should satisfy two egos. Once positioned, you will act out, play the brat, be sent to the dean for a lecture, and memorize everything in the office. Then you will finish your school day as a schoolgirl in case I need another intrusion. The work may require an additional day. I shall expect a report on the office after Miss Feinstein drops you off.’
‘The academy is for high school students. I’m twenty-six.’
‘You are sufficiently youthful. However, you may make what preparations as you see fit. Please don’t use drugs in my home. Keep the receipts of legal purchases.’
I could be insulted for flattered. To serve Coventry, and to keep from committing the act of homicide, justified or not, it’s a good idea to go with flattery whenever possible.
I sniffed the air for the rainbow trout. He noticed it, but then again he notices everything.
‘I prepared it as Wulfe Trout. There is more than enough for two.’
‘I’ll call Feinstein after lunch.’ The problem with a genius is that he can make things, like trout, better, so he has to be suffered.
The bus. I rode a school bus, and the horrible thing was that it was rather pleasant. It had been some years since I suffered a pack of young men sniffing about. Dogs. Lovely, adorable dogs. Still, none of them could tell the difference between confidence and arrogance. And they didn’t seem to appreciate that, after the glorious act of sex is finished, there’s this whole thing called “living together” that happens. Jesus, I felt old.