Here’s the synopsis:
No matter how hard he drinks, gambles, or womanizes, Disciple Manning simply cannot forget: not a word spoken, not an image glimpsed, not a pain suffered. Disciple Manning has total recall. Whatever he hears, he can remember with 100% accuracy. He can play it back in his head for an infinite number of times without a single change. It’s a blessing and a curse. He’s been prodded and studied by scientists. He’s been heralded as a genius and cursed as a mutant.
Now, Disciple uses his skills as a private investigator. When Jonathan and Amanda Bonjour come into his office, he knows immediately it’s a missing girl. He’s had many cases like this before, and they never end well. His journey takes him to Western Pennsylvania and to the compound of a charismatic cult known as The Framers, who believe that Earth is about to be engulfed by the sun. On the rural outskirts of the very same town, a neo-Nazi organization has overtaken most of the churches and is spreading hate through twisted interpretations of the Bible. Disciple knows crazy–hell, most people consider him crazy–but he’s never known crazy quite like this.
Advance Praise for DISCIPLE OF THE DOG
“Someone said that reading a Jim Thompson novel was like being locked up in a fallout shelter with a brilliant, chatty, fast-talking maniac. Meet your new companion: Disciple Manning.” —Jim Sallis, New York Times bestselling author of Salt of a River
“Even without the benefit–or would that be hindrance–of total recall, this is a book I’ll remember for a long time. And enjoyable as it was, when the details fade I look forward to rereading and loving it again.” —Bob Fingerman, award-winning author of Bottom Feeder and Pariah
“Beautifully viscious and painfully, darkly human, Bakker’s Disciple of the Dog is the kind of book that makes a lot of other noir look like it was written by Sunday School teachers.” —Brian Evenson, award-winning author of Last Days
After the jump check out an excerpt of Disciple of the Dog by R. Scott Bakker.
I am called a dog because I fawn on those who give, bark at those who refuse, and set my teeth in rascals. –Diogenes of Sinope
Pretty much everyone began smelling up the room with various theories and scenarios when she disappeared—me included. The way I see it, the mind doesn’t so much abhor a vacuum as it adores passing gas.
I saw her walking along the verge of a rural highway, her steps wandering from the cooling gravel to the still-warm asphalt. She can feel the itch of pollen high in her nose. She’s drunk enough to laugh at her oopsy stride. Rising from a ragged silhouette of trees, the lights of the town haze the sky behind her. The whole world seems to hum with the call of nocturnal things. She peers into it, baffled by the darkness, yet seeing all the same. She knows where the abandoned factories loom, where the weeds and sumac throng.
She shivers, curses herself for her premonitions. How many times has she walked this road? Besides, she can see the lights of the Compound in the distance. The lights of home.
The first car, the innocent one, whisks by, and she blinks against the headlight glare, glimpses the road-rapt faces of a husband and wife. Even though the woman glances at her, she forgets them instantly.
The world is so filled with strangers.
She pauses, finding that drunken point where the wobble and the steadied nerves come together in a kind of floating equilibrium, and she looks high into the bowl of the night sky.
Stars plume out to the limit of Creation.
She revels in the spectacle, holds out her arms and swings in a languorous pirouette. Her heels scuff the gravelled verge of the highway. All is illuminated. Every-fucking-thing.
But the heavens are hard on the neck. Eventually her gaze falters, resumes its wary survey of the industrial park. Clutches of trees. Humped ridges. Factories hulking in the dark.
A hide-and-seek world, filled with ambushes.
That’s when she glimpses the second car, its headlights dazzling the sheeted dark.
The one that slowed, its window slipping down. The one that started with smiling strangers, but ended with screams and pruning shears.
The final car.
A Real Winner
My father always claimed I had an attitude problem. “You’re too dismissive,” he once told me. “Too quick to judge. Life is bigger than you know, you know.”
To which I replied, “C’mon, Dad. That’s just stupid talk.”
That was June 13, 1981. A good day.
For some mysterious reason, maybe genetic, maybe environmental, maybe some combination of the two, I am doubtful and irreverent through and through. Show me a picture of your newborn baby and I’ll ask you if you’re holding it upside down. Tell me you’ve won the lottery and I’ll give you the number of my coke dealer. Show me a flag and I see kinky sheets on a hooker’s bed. I never commit, not to the big things, and certainly not to the little. It’s not that I’m evil or anything, it’s just that, no matter how hard I try, I never think what I should. Where everyone sees a Merge sign, I read Detour.
A true-blue individual—that’s what I am.
You would think that would make me popular, you know, home of the brave, land of the free, all that crap. But such is not the case, alas. Truth is, the only kind of individualism Americans believe in is the one that numbs the sting of name tags, or that makes a trip to the mall an exercise in self-creation. The consumer kind.
The false kind.
And who knows? Maybe that’s the way it should be.
Ignore the Merge sign long enough, and sooner or later somebody gets killed.
I’m what you would call a cynic.
This isn’t to be confused with a skeptic. Skeptics don’t believe in anything because they care too much. For them the dignity of truth is perpetually beyond the slovenly reach of humankind. We’re just not qualified.
A cynic, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in anything because he doesn’t care enough. I mean, really, who gives a fuck?
My name is Disciple Manning. A stupid name, I know—pretty much what you would expect from stupid-talking parents. When people ask me my name, I simply say Diss, Diss Manning. When they make funny with their faces, I lie and tell them I was named after my father, Datt Manning. I usually get a laugh out of dat. If I don’t, if I still get the funny stuff, you know, the What-fucking-planet-are-you-from look, then I hit them, hard—unless they happen to be a cop, in which case I just keep kissing ass.
The one thing you need to remember about me is that I don’t forget.
According to the doctors, it’s driving me crazy.
And this is why I find myself sitting down and writing. My latest therapist thinks my problem isn’t what I remember so much as how. She’s a big believer in the power of stories. She thinks hammering my more toxic memories into narrative form will give them some kind of psychologically redemptive meaning.
Sounds foofy, I know. I’ve always thought writing is just what happens when we pursue our genius for justifying our scams for its own sake. But she’s cute, and there’s a wisdom you get after botching as many suicide attempts as I have. Putting pen to paper just doesn’t seem that big a deal after putting knife to skin.
Nothing does, really. Strange knowledge, that.
Otherwise, I’m like pretty much everyone else. I used to have all these grandiose goals and ambitions, an abiding conviction that I was the master of my own destiny, blah-blah-blah. But life just kept happening, you know? And the ad hoc decisions piled up and up and up, until I found myself stranded on a mountain not of my own making. You see, it’s convenience that drives the species, not in any grand sense but in the most squalid way you could possibly imagine. Say your wife starts coming home late on a regular basis, and you get this kind of queasy feeling in your gut, like on some parallel plane of existence you just stepped off the Tilt-A-Whirl. So what do you do? Say nothing. Follow the ruts. Keep your eyes on the habituated prize. Only ten years to go on the mortgage!
It’s these kinds of decisions that define who we are, by and large. The small kind. The lazy kind.
And then one day you wake up, and the distance between your youthful hope and your middle-aged actuality yawns like a tiger on the wrong side of the cage. What happened? you ask yourself, but you know. It’s written into the meat of you, all those little concessions to your weaker nature.
Trust me, dude, I know. I spy on you. I see you all the time. Gambling away your wife’s savings, giving a hand job to your husband’s best friend. I’m the guy who hands the envelope to your spouse so that he or she can give it to the divorce lawyer, or even worse, confront you with it. I’m the archivist of your lesser self—you know, the side of you that calls the shots between official engagements. I’m the bastard who makes your secrets real. Disciple Manning, the sole proprietor of Manning Investigations, based out of Newark, New Jersey.
That’s right. I’m a private detective. A dick. The part-time security guard of the investigative world.
A real winner.
When Jonathan and Amanda Bonjour first came to my office, I assumed it would be yet one more missing kid gig, and I was right. When a couple comes in together, it generally has something to do with either a parent or a kid—usually the latter, but you would be surprised at how many grandmas go off the rails gambling, and how many grandpas climb on the rails—the snorting kind. Especially these days.
My agency lies on one of those streets where ratty sidewalk frontages from the twenties alternate with strip malls set behind lines of anemic trees. The kind of place where mom grips junior’s hand a little extra tight. Pawnshops. Cut-rate pedicures and hairdressing. A bar that booms on welfare cheque day, and another bar that somehow ekes by on nothing at all—just lingers. Same-day loans. The world’s most grungy IHOP.
All that’s missing is a methadone clinic.
My kingdom consists of a narrow, thousand-square-foot retail slot strategically situated between a souvlaki stand and a porn shop—so when the air doesn’t reek of charred lamb, it smells like cheap lubricants. My office lies at the back, next to the all-important copy-slash-smoking room. I have my desk positioned so that I can either pretend nobody’s home or, with a simple crane of my neck, glimpse anyone unfortunate enough to wander in. This is precisely what I did when I heard the cowbell on my entrance cough and clunk—apparently it has a crack in it—at precisely 11:48 A.M. on Monday.
I first glimpsed the Bonjours standing side by side before my secretary, Kimberley, in the reception area, which I have shrewdly decorated with water stains and a chipped plaster ceiling. Jonathan Bonjour was heavy-set. I would have thought of him as fat, but I have this mindset where I begin flattering people mentally the instant they walk in the door. The well-practised lie always comes off the best. I knew instantly that he was a lawyer simply because his suit fit. Since no two people pack on weight the same way, it’s pretty much impossible for fat guys to find suits that fit off the rack.
Mrs. Bonjour—Amanda—was overweight as well, but in that healthy, pear-shaped way that seems to drive death row inmates crazy. The curls of her hair shimmered violet on black in the light panning through my office’s front window, and her lips were pert and poppy red, what you might expect to find on an Alabama stenographer rather than a New Jersey lawyer’s wife. Her skin was real pale. Side by side, the two of them fairly shouted good genes and easy living—a testament to the American Dream.
So of course something tragic had to have happened.
I basically have two routines that I use when introducing myself to new clients. Either I play Remington, razor-sharp on the outside but warm and slippery within, or I play Columbo, a mob of yarn tangled about concealed razors. Appearances being everything, I opted for the Remington approach, sauntered out to lean against the door frame. I smiled at the couple with solemn confidence, said, “Please … Kimberley, do show them in.” I suppose the debonair image I cut jarred with the smell of baba ghanouj that happened to occupy the aromatic high ground at that particular moment, but the Bonjours seemed too freaked out to really care.
Once in my office, Jonathan Bonjour shook my hand with the inky ease of people who habitually press the flesh. His face was tanned and handsome above his jowls, and his blue eyes possessed a canniness that I immediately recognized. I’ve yet to meet a lawyer who wasn’t a cynic of some description. You spend your life pretending to believe assholes and you’re bound to start seeing shit everywhere you look. Just another hazard of the trade.
I could tell that he recognized something in my eyes as well. Weird, all these little moments that pass between people. For most everybody, they slip into oblivion, but me, I catch them like flies.
Amanda Bonjour was an entirely different story. To her, I was something out of a bad movie, yet another symptom that her life had gone from badness to madness. When I reached out to shake her hand, she almost flinched, as though instinctively loath to confirm what the greater part of her refused to believe. Everyone knows that touching something makes it real.
To spare her any embarrassment, I turned my outstretched hand into a Please-take-a-seat gesture. What can I say? She was a customer, and I was wearing a name tag.
She kind of plumped into the seat next to her husband’s then immediately started crying. I hate to admit it, but that was the precise moment I decided to charge them my highest rate. Ugly, I know, but the doctor said this whole storytelling thing would be, and I quote, “little more than a self-aggrandizing exercise in futility” unless I’m brutally honest.
After fumbling through the introductions, Jonathan Bonjour got to the point.
“It’s our daughter, Mr. Manning. She’s missing.”
Even though I expected he would say as much, I found myself slightly winded. I really don’t know why, given that I had heard the words “She’s missing” more times than somebody like you would care to remember. It’s like the planes hitting the World Trade Center: you see it over and over and over, until it carries about as much punch as a movie trailer, and then one night you see it and wham! it steals your breath, and you sweat horror, as though part of your soul had been on that plane, and had only now remembered.
She’s missing …
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“Jennifer,” Mrs. Bonjour said, a wisp of reverence in her tone. She snuffled.
“Jenni,” her husband added. “That’s, ah … what, ah … what everyone calls her.”
I’m not what you would call the sympathetic sort—I remember too much of my own pain to concern myself with hurts that others will eventually forget—but something cracked through Mr. Bonjour’s modulated voice, something primal, and something within me answered in an empathetic rush. For an instant I could literally feel the teetering possibilities gnawing at my heart. I could see the empty bedroom down the hall, the door neither opened nor closed, the bar of accusing light gleaming across the hardwood floor. I could hear the silence emanating from the girlish running shoes abandoned next to the door jamb …
The Bonjour house, I knew, was becoming a museum to “last times.” Clothes stacked on the corner of the bed. Jeans crumpled in a corner. Old cellphone half buried in the change bowl.
“Do you have a picture?” I asked, my voice rough enough to be embarrassing.
Amanda Bonjour immediately leaned forward, a four-by-six glossy in her hand. She stared at me intently as I lifted it.
And I could feel it, the magic of names humming up out of the photo. She would have been just another generic, beautiful face otherwise, something to focus the momentary lust of consumers. Long blond hair, straight enough to summon memories of Marcia Brady. Full lips. Straight teeth. Happiness hesitating in her sparkling blue eyes.
I knew instantly that she hadn’t run away—she was too attractive. Runaways are almost always plain or downright ugly, as intent to escape the damnation of photos like these as to flee the judgment of peers, parents, what have you. Beautiful people generally lack the motive required to stage their own disappearance. On the contrary, beautiful people tend to be about appearances.
I should know.
“She’s not a runaway,” I said, looking up to meet the Bonjours’ gaze. “What is she? Nineteen? Twenty in this photo?”
“Nineteen,” Mrs. Bonjour said in a small voice.
“And that would make her?”
“Twenty-one.” Her breath was tight, deep-sea-diver deliberate. “She’s twenty-one now.”
I set the photo against the base of my desk lamp so that I could reference her face and her parents with a single glance. I graced them with a sage nod, then leaned back in my chair with an open-handed gesture. “So … what happened?”
The story they told me sounded like something cribbed from the Biography Channel. Flattering and negativity-free. You see, people always make cases. Always. Rather than simply describe things, they pitch them this way and that. So when the Bonjours said that Jennifer was a curious girl, an overachiever, and so on, they were literally offering evidence of the adequacy of their parenting skills, while at the same time saying, “She wasn’t the kind of girl who …” They wanted me to know that whatever it was that had happened to their precious daughter had precious little to do with them. And when they mentioned her “weakness for musicians,” they were saying that, as perfectly as she had been raised, she exhibited a dispositional vulnerability to untoward influences—so to speak.
If I was surprised when they mentioned the cult, it was because I had expected drugs to be the culprit—simply because they almost always are when beautiful kids take roads not marked in their parents’ road atlas. According to Mrs. Bonjour, she had found Them online as a high school student, first becoming, without the knowledge of Mom and Dad, a “long-distance associate,” then graduating to become a “text messenger” in her first year of college. At some point she began attending weekend retreats, which cut ever more deeply into her visits home, until she dropped out of her nursing program altogether and moved into the Compound—a place just outside a Rust Belt town called Ruddick in southeastern Pennsylvania.
“These people,” I asked. “What do they call themselves?” So far the Bonjours had only referred to the cult as either “They” or “Them,” spoken in tones of stone-age superstition.
Both faces became pensive and sour. I half expected one of them to whisper “Voldemort” or “Sauron” or something.
“They call themselves the Framers,” Amanda eventually said.
“Never heard of them. What do they believe?”
She pulled a face. “That the world, this world, isn’t really … real.”
“Isn’t that religion in general?” I cracked before I could stop myself.
“You explain it,” she said crossly to her husband. “Jon has a philosophy degree,” she explained, saying “philosophy degree” the way others say “drinking problem.”
“They’re one of those New Age, human potential things,” Jonathan said. “What’s called a charismatic cult.”
As I subsequently learned on the Web, this meant they had organized themselves around the revelations of a single, power-monopolizing individual—apparently a very bad sign as far as cults go.
“The leader’s name,” he continued, “is Xenophon Baars. He’s a former philosophy professor out of Berkeley, believe it or not …”
“You make it sound as if he should know better.”
“He should know better.”
“Maybe he does …”
“Of course he does!” Mrs. Bonjour cried. “The whole thing is a murderous con!”
Whether it was the savagery of her interruption or the implications of that word “murderous,” the outburst left an embarrassing chill in its wake.
“What my wife means,” Mr. Bonjour said stiffly, “is that the cult’s beliefs are too … extreme for anyone with Baars’s education to seriously entertain. We think he’s simply duping these people for money and, ah … sex.”
“What do you mean by ‘extreme’?”
“They think the world is about to end,” he said, his tone as blank as his face.
“And?” So far the Framers were sounding pretty commonplace. The philosophy professor thing was a twist of sorts, I supposed. But otherwise? Didn’t all those crazy fuckers think the end was nigh?
“Five billion years from now …”
I tried hard not to smirk. “You mean, like … when the sun swallows us up?”
“Exactly. This Baars has convinced his followers that the world is more than five billion years older than it is. And that it’s about to end.”
I rubbed my face in an attempt to wipe away a marvelling grin. I looked at them both, each desolate in a different way, gouged not only by loss but by disbelief. That something so absurd, so stupid …
I nodded gravely. “I see what you mean.”
I’ve seen more than my fair share of absurdities in my time: Christ, this job throws them at you like rotten fruit at a burlesque gone wrong. Tragedy astounds people no matter what, sure. The big things are just too heavy to be caught in human nets. But life also has a nasty habit of dishing up calamity as the punchline of a joke as well, and with a regularity that’s nothing short of perverse. We keep waiting for something Shakespearean to happen, when most of the world is just an annex to the Jerry Springer show. Squalid. Cheap. Mean-spirited.
So few people die pretty.
I glanced at the photo of Jennifer Bonjour leaning against my faux art deco lamp. An unopened bill lay askew just below it, and I glimpsed my name and the top third of my address through the plastic window. DISCIPLE MANNING, stamped across some law of perspective. The chill of sudden conviction dropped through me … The first of many such chills, as it turned out.
I’m not sure how I knew she was dead, but somehow I did—and I suspected the grieving couple before me knew as well.
I pressed them for details of the police investigation, expecting to hear the Bonjour version of what I’ve come to call the Authority Rant. Most everybody who comes to me has a grudge against the authorities, either because they have something to hide or because they’ve been let down in some manner. When it comes to cases like the Bonjours’, they almost always have a tale of official indifference, incompetence, or, if they’re really mad, outright malfeasance. Personally, I had nothing against The System. I understood the kinds of limitations that cops faced: the politics, the fatigue individuals were prone to, the constraints of policy and procedure, the ways bureaucratic machinery could generate irrational outcomes.
I’ve worked in factories before. I know the score.
As it turned out, so did the Bonjours. The story they told was one of a local police chief who meant well but was hopelessly out of his depth when it came to this case. Caleb Nolen, his name was. Chief Caleb Nolen. From what they described, he did everything by the book, and a few things above and beyond. According to the Framers (Nolen had interviewed all twenty-seven of them), Jennifer left the Compound with another cult member named Anson Williams at around 8:30 P.M. to walk into town to a bar called Legends, where the two liked to dance. The walk was a long one, at least two and a half miles, much of it through Ruddick’s largely abandoned industrial park, but apparently the two enjoyed the air, exercise, and the opportunity to talk. They were close friends but not lovers. Witnesses placed the two of them at the bar, dancing and drinking, until approximately 11:30 P.M., when the doorman said Jennifer left muted but not otherwise distraught. According to Anson, she had been nursing a headache most of the evening and finally decided to return home to sleep. He claimed that she agreed to call a cab at his insistence, but the doorman said that she left on foot, headed in the direction of the Framer Compound.
She never arrived.
According to cellphone records, Anson called her twice, once at 12:03 A.M. and again at 12:17 A.M. She didn’t answer. He then called the Compound, asking whether anyone had seen her. When he learned from the doorman that she had walked, he struck out on foot after her, calling her name and searching the verges of the road. Evidently, he feared she had been hit by a passing car. He found nothing. At 1:33 A.M., Xenophon Baars himself called the police department, expressing their concern. At approximately 2 A.M., one of Nolen’s deputies embarked on a cursory search of the route and the surrounding brown lands—apparently the area is mazed with abandoned steel and assembly plants, a creepy place for a young woman to be walking alone, but so familiar to the locals that they thought nothing of it. When she failed to turn up the next morning, the Chief wisely said to hell with procedure and pulled out all the missing-person stops. By mid-afternoon they had some eighty-plus volunteers combing the ruined structures and surrounding ravines. There was no sign of her. None. They tried again the next day, this time with State Police dogs. Again, nothing.
The Bonjours got the call from Nolen’s office that morning, and I could see the catastrophe on their faces as they described it: the little girl they had loved, nurtured, and even suffered on occasion was missing. Gone.
They fell silent after that.
I asked them about going to the media. They said the police department had already issued a public statement, that two of the Pittsburgh television stations and the main paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, had aired or printed stories along with photos of their daughter—so far to no avail.
“One reporter told us they purposefully bury stories like ours,” Amanda said with more than a little animus. “‘JonBenet fatigue,’ he called it … But what he meant was that missing pretty white girls are out of fashion.”
“No,” Jon Bonjour said. “It’s because of all the criticism the media received, you know … for being too Hollywood.”
“Hollywood?” Amanda fairly cried.
“The way they pick victims like casting directors, stories like movie prod—”
“So what are you saying, Jon? That our daughter is too blond, too beautiful? That political correctness is what’s keeping her buried on the back page? Keeping her … lost …”
Lost? Was that what they really thought?
I glanced at the glossy on my desk, at the dead girl’s almost smiling eyes. I could already see the crime scene photographs, the grisly before and after. Naked. The limbs bent in poses the living would find excruciating. The skin purple-grey-white. That was when I started thinking of her as “Dead Jennifer.”
Sounds horrible, I know. What can I say? I’m a freak.
I shook my head and pinched my eyes. I did what I always do when my thoughts take an errant turn: I asked a question. “How would you characterize your relationship?”
“What do you mean?” Mrs. Bonjour asked.
“Your relationship with Jennifer. Was it loving or, ah … troubled?”
“He wants to know whether the cult was just an excuse to escape us,” her husband said with spousal wariness. Jonathan Bonjour, I realized at that moment, wasn’t simply a lawyer, he was a good lawyer.
“Troubled,” Mrs. Bonjour said stiffly. “Troubled.”
“Not abusive,” Mr. Bonjour interjected. “There’s troubled and then there—”
Something flashed across his wife’s face. “I’m sure Mr. Manning re—”
“I just didn’t want him to get the wrong idea!”
They both looked to me in expectation—funny how some couples turn every third party into a marriage counsellor—so I held them in suspense for a thoughtful moment. “And what idea would that be, Mr. Bonjour?”
“Jon slapped her,” Mrs. Bonjour said in a clear, broadcasting tone. “The last … fight we had. Jon slapped … her.”
“I … ah …” Jon Bonjour croaked through his sinuses as though ready to spit à la NASCAR, swallowed instead. He wiped tears from his eyes with a fat thumb. “I … I don’t know what to say.” These last words were pinched through a sob. His face flushed red beneath the hood of his hand.
“Jonny blames himself,” Mrs. Bonjour said blankly. “He thinks all of this is his fault.”
“I appreciate your honesty,” I said as professionally as I could. “Most people try to doctor the story, believing they’re better served if they come out looking like angels. But the only thing that serves in these situations, the only thing, is the truth.” I leaned forward, placed my elbows against the desktop. Very Remington Steele. “You do understand that?”
Irritation scuttled across his fat face. “Of course,” he said.
Rates, conditions, and so on are always difficult items to discuss, so you have to be opportunistic, take what chances the ebb and flow of conversation offer. I typically use money talk to doctor breakdowns in the conversation, especially if things become emotionally overwrought. No small amount of defensiveness and aggression walks into offices like mine. But as soon as you mention money, most of the personal shit just evaporates. I could literally see Mr. and Mrs. Bonjour’s heart rates slow as I discussed the terms. Few things are more dear to the human animal than simplicity, or the appearance of it anyway. And few things are more simple, more apparently superficial, than monetary transactions.
Open the wallet, close the heart—that’s generally the rule.
They agreed to everything without comment or question—even the exorbitant rate. Something told me that I could have charged double, even triple, and Mr. Bonjour would have responded with precisely the same numb nod. Mrs. Bonjour, I’m sure, would have sold her liver to a Chinese penal hospital if that meant finding her daughter. I suffered that vague and momentary regret that accompanies lost opportunities. You know, Oh well … I realize this isn’t the kind of stuff you want to hear from your heroes. But I was juggling too many bills with too few hands—no different than you, I imagine—and Jonathan Bonjour had a big fat wallet just bursting with hands.
“I have one last question,” I said, “for you specifically, Mr. Bonjour.” The obvious disparity between our income brackets reminded me of an itch I’d wanted to scratch ever since I had realized that Jonathan Bonjour was a lawyer. “Your law firm regularly contracts private investigators, does it not?”
A moment of shock. He hadn’t told me his profession.
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Stuff like this … personal stuff with consequences that are, well, as big as you can imagine … such stuff requires trust …” I let him twist on that word for a second. “Why wouldn’t you go to people you know?”
“This wasn’t Jonny’s idea,” Amanda said. I had already guessed as much, but it was good to hear.
“Even still …”
“No offence, Mr. Manning, but my opinion of your profession is rather … jaded …”
This was like a hooker saying she finds the company of strippers embarrassing. No offence, he says. Fucking lawyers.
“Well, let’s just say that I’ve come to that opinion through long experience.”
“But it’s not just that,” Amanda added nervously. “You see … Jonny’s already gone down there, asking questions and all, and the people are … well, more like you.”
“Like me?” I smiled despite myself, nodded. “You mean, like … socio-economically disadvantaged.”
I counted exactly three seconds of embarrassed silence.
“We thought that you might be able to talk their, uh, language.”
Fucking rich people, man. Always riding the yo-yo of entitlement and embarrassment. The good ones, anyway.
“My ad in the Yellow Pages that bad, huh?”
Twin anxious laughs.
The conversation seemed pretty cut and dried, even though the case was anything but. Still, after-the-fact interpretation being what it is, there were enough hanging threads for me to realize this apparent simplicity would likely buckle under scrutiny, if not flip into something altogether different.
I told them I had a couple of cases pending, but that I would start right away anyway. Time is everything when it comes to missing persons. Then I did what I always do with new clients when I take a job: I gave them a list of things to do. Search her room for anything that might help: an old diary, drug paraphernalia, computer disks or camera SD cards. Call Nolen to tell him they had hired me, that they expected him to do everything in his power to assist me. The same with Xenophon Baars, taking care to conceal their outrage, of course. “No ego allowed,” I told them, quite oblivious to any irony. “This is not about scoring points.”
You see, the Bonjours had come to me because they were helpless. Sure, they’d contractually engaged my services, but emotionally they’d simply swapped one kind of helplessness for another. Who hasn’t suffered a pang of impotence in the presence of a mechanic, a plumber, or (worst of all) a computer technician? My clients not only leave my office with a professionally legitimated Don’t-worry-about-a-thing lie, they also take home a false feeling of empowerment.
A to-do list.
Makes them happy, and it makes my job easier—sometimes, anyway. Clients have a way of fucking things up.
I ushered the Bonjours to the plate glass entrance with the solemn efficiency of a funeral home director. There was an uncomfortable pause as Mrs. Bonjour knelt on the mat to retie her shoes. Mr. Bonjour simply didn’t know what to say; he just copped that stiff pose that so many husbands assume when their wives interrupt otherwise economical social transactions with nitty concerns. Why couldn’t she just say fucking goodbye and be done with it?
Meanwhile, I wrestled with the embarrassment peculiar to cracked ceilings and beaten linoleum floors. My place had that bankrupt-travel-agency feel to it—stale, grime in the creases. Real chic. I could imagine the two of them sizing it up from the soundproofed confines of their BMW, saying, “Well, it looks like a dump,” with the worn-out irony of those run down to their final options.
Then I realized that Mrs. Bonjour was crying. She had knelt on one knee to tie the shoe on the opposite foot, then switched to the other and just … hung there, her cheek pressed against her knee. Sunlight cut across her at an angle, casting arthritic shadows of her hands and wrists across the mat.
She trembled like a timid dog at the vet, keened in a baby-small voice. Her words, if there were any, were inaudible.
My first thought was of me: she was crying because she had been reduced to the likes of me. But that blew away like the flimsy conceit it was. It was something else—someone else. Suddenly I saw, not Mrs. Bonjour, but the woman my subsequent research would reveal as Mandy Bonjour née Patterson. The woman with the secrets she had never told her husband, who hoarded little mementoes that only she could decipher.
It’s strange, isn’t it, glimpsing the person behind the type. The feeling of inside-out recognition. The lining up of first-person perspectives. The twinge of ghosts moving through each other. You bat an eye and suddenly, somehow, this stranger has become a family member.
She cried for all of thirty seconds. Then, abruptly, she stood up, glared at her husband for a hateful heartbeat, then, with a cursory nod at me, pressed her way through the door into the stark world of light and shadow beyond. She strode down the street, a kind of watery walk, the laces of her left shoe kicking in front of her and trailing behind. Jonathan Bonjour wordlessly followed.
I was left with that humbling feeling of having witnessed something heroic …
Or at least something beyond my mangy capabilities.