“Archer Investigations. How may I direct your call?” She nods a few times then places her hand over the receiver mouthing, “work.” She hands the phone to him then assumes repose against the desk.
“I see…when did this happen? Got’cha. Yup, can do. Cash only. I’ll take a look.” He writes something on the back of an opened envelope, hangs up and wags his head. “Jag-off.” He sits in a swivel chair behind the age stained wooden desk, bends to open the bottom drawer fumbling in its depths for a moment. He switches on the desk lamp. It’s twilight.
“Yeah. You tell um…” Whispering dreamy, distracted, her voice; youthful smoke and old whiskey. Crystalline eyes dart to the man reflecting their strange, and for the time being, satisfying office romance, “Jag-off.” She giggles.
Reaching inside the drawer he withdraws a Smith and Wesson .38. He clicks it open, spins the cylinder; it’s loaded. He places the gun on the desktop; blued steel, wooden grips, short barrel, six shots, good for tight work. If you can’t get it done in six shots you need more than a handgun, you need medical assistance.
“Sorry, but that thing creeps me out.” She says pushing away from the desk.
“Listen Doll, I’d rather be caught with it than caught without it.”
“Men.” She says dismissive in the way of a loving aunt or a temporary girlfriend. “Get us some work?”
He cocks an eye. “Possible. Missing persons… Dude lost all his friends on facebook.”
“That’s funny,” she says.
“No, serious. Wants me to find his one-thousand-something “friends.” No one has a thousand friends.”
She smiles. “You have me.”
“That’s all I need Effie.”
He returns the pistol to the drawer covering it with the wine stained map of Vietnam. “Missing persons…” He unearths a tattered MUNI map of San Francisco. The small office is overcrowded. The desk a wrecking yard; partially digested mail, a souped up Mac G4, the phone, working ashtrays and two rocks glasses, a lipstick smudge on one. Effie reclines in one of the two leather upholstered chairs that front the desk. Sagging bookcases flank the walls. He scans the room for an open space, shrugs, then flutters the map to the floor following it down resting on his hands and knees.
“What are you looking for?” she says.
“Something’s missing. Missing things.” He turns the desk lamp.
She reaches for her smartphone, “Here, let me find it.”
“Effie, that box doesn’t know everything. Lookie here doll.” She kneels beside him on the Persian carpet. Using a pencil, he points to the lower left hand corner of the map, “MUNI basic fare; fifty cents.”
“That for real?” Her voice rises a notch.
“You bet’cha Doll. Haf’a buck.”
“Sorta, but the ‘X’ is gone.”
She brightens. “Probably faded.”
“Faded sure, but things are missing.” He directs the pencil point to the Tenderloin. “Frenchy’s has disappeared.”
“Bookstore of the, um…exotic. I’ve been told, one could walk anonymously into Frenchy’s and though a virus was possible, no cookies trailed after you.” The pencil stops near the waterfront. “Bouncers Bar – vanished. Bouncers was like the bar in Star Wars where all worlds connect. Cheap beer. Prizefighter bartender. Longshoremen, secretaries, bikers, bankers, butchers, bricklayers, teamsters, nurses, priests, politicians, and whores drank, and conversed in mutual recognition and selfsame anonymity. Deals were struck. Contraband was not. Bouncers served vice without judgment. Impossible today, cell phone cameras and social media make everyone a potential snitch.”
Effie grins wistfully returning to the chair.
“Say foreigners in military vehicles drove through American cities taking pictures of everything would Americans be upset? We’d shoot’um up worse than Clyde Barrow’s getaway car but since it’s Google, well then, that’s okay, ‘do no harm.’ My ass.”’
Before she went to work for Miles Archer, Google cars seemed innocuous and oddly cute.
With a grunt he sits beside her. “I’m a boomer, Free Range.” He arches his eyebrows, “Parents wanted us kids out the house, rain or snow, weather be damned. No, really. Was okay by us. See, once out the door we could have been on Mars. Parents couldn’t find us. We came home when the streetlights came on. There was no adult supervision…ever.” He pauses. “Now, I open my goddamn computer and some unseen dickhead watches me closer than my mom ever did. It’s creepy.”
She’s slightly deflated, “My world is connected; wired, cell phone, computers, web. For emergencies they said, but my mom texted me all the time checking on me, who was I with, where I was, blah-blah-blah. She still does. Moms anxiety scared the shit out of me – child abduction this, rape that, never ending hell. If I’m honest, I don’t fear the boogeyman as much as being disconnected. Being off leash. I don’t know any other way…” she’s staring out the window. “Wasn’t it, you know, scary, being out in the world like that?”
“Tell ya what, sometimes your twenty-first century feels like being locked inside a house, filled with adults, on a summer day, with a furnace blasting. Makes it hard to breathe.” He blanches. “GPS tracking, NSA phone tapping, ATM’s and direct deposit track every fucking dime, state camera’s, private camera’s, there’s a camera fits up your ass. The watchers never sleep.”
Noting her furtive smile, his face softens. The sun has set completely. Effie steps to her watercolor reflection in the window and places the palm of her hand against the cool pane. “Free range?” She echoes. “Sounds like… paradise.”
The scotch-taped map on the floor holds his attention. “Miles?” He looks. She kisses him on the cheek. “You need a shave honey.”
She kneels beside him, “Hey…,” her finger tip traces ‘X’ over a small alley above the Stockton tunnel; their stake in his map, “you found me without GPS.” She stands, smoothes her skirt, turns off her phone and unplugs the landline. Miles bears a transcendent smile as she begins to close the shades.
* this is a take off on Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon a book that every single resident of San Francisco should read.