By Ben Van Dongen
The alarm on my watch buzzed and beeped. I had a fuzzy recollection of setting it the night before, but at six in the morning, I couldn’t figure out why. Another hour, or dozen, of sleep would have felt amazing, but I relented and got up. I had a cot in a little room of the space I’d rented a few months prior – another fuzzy decision. There weren’t any windows in the room, so I was shocked to see snow on my way to the bathroom.
The building was on a little side street – glorified alley – called Maiden Lane. The scene was undisturbed, picturesque, and unwelcome at such an early hour. I had originally thought of the space for the detective agency because it was sleazy and run down when I was a kid. I figured it would be perfect, but in the years since I’d been there, the area was transformed into a hipster’s paradise. It was a Mecca of fashionable cafes, art studios, independent designers, and boutiques. I had a year lease though, so I tried to make the best of it.
It turned out to be the kind of crowd that looked for the service we provided. I never would have expected it, but a psychic detective fit right in. Not that I was psychic, or even believed in that sort of thing, but I was a detective out of a job who ran into a psychic who needed a partner. On the rare occasion she actually had a premonition, they tended to be eerily close to the truth, but most of the actual detecting rested on my shoulders. It suited me fine. She razzle-dazzled people and I got to sneak around and detect.
I rubbed my eyes and looked at my reflection. I hadn’t shaved in over a week and my hair was so messy it had knots. My clothes hung from a hook near the toilet. I’d fallen into the habit of wearing the same thing for a couple days in a row – saved on laundry. My white, button up shirt was wrinkled and slightly yellowed. My pants weren’t much better. My overcoat covered it all when I was outside at least. I had let myself go since I was fired. My former, freshly pressed, self would have been mortified. What got me were the compliments. The young, hip, area residents thought my look was a fashion statement. I didn’t correct them.
I brushed my teeth and tried to flatten my hair with water – it half worked. I gave my shirt a sniff and decided I should at least wash myself in the sink. The building only got cold water, so I tried to talk myself out of it, but it seemed I still had a line. The only soap was in a pump bottle, but it smelled good and I felt refreshed after – good enough to go traipsing in the snow.
It was still dark when I ventured out. The snow was falling in fat, heavy flakes that collected and clung to everything. I inhaled deeply, getting an icy-wetness in my nose. It still smelled like fall though. I walked to the door to the restaurant next to the office. It was a Russian place that had been only open for lunch, but I managed to convince the owner to serve bacon and eggs. It wasn’t quite seven, but there were already people seated in the small restaurant. Anywhere I sat, the table next to me would be occupied. My stomach growled, so I went in. The owner/server nodded and I picked a table.
The coffee came quickly without a word. It was terrible, but I was happy for the warmth. He didn’t bother to take my order – I always went for the same thing. I checked out the other patrons. There was an old couple holding hands and sharing a newspaper near the door. A pair of young tattooed guys, still wearing their toques, were entranced by their phones. A young woman with stretched earlobes was at a table by herself. I thought she had been crying, but she giggled at the menu and I realized she was stoned.
My meal came quickly. The owner dropped the plate in front of me – almost setting a sausage free. He gave me a look that said he blamed me for how his life had turned out. I could relate. I gave him the idea for breakfast because I wanted it, not for other people. A bell signalled more patrons walking in, I didn’t bother looking up.
Even though the place was filled with nesting dolls, vodka bottles, and faux Fabergé eggs, it reminded me of the cafe where I went for breakfast as a kid. The connection was obvious, but unexpected in the strangely decorated space. The place I went as a kid was a classic greasy spoon – vinyl booths, a laminate counter, and pictures of the food on the menu. The thing I remember most is the big Star Wars arcade cabinet they had, stuck in the corner. It hardly fit and was out of place, but I spent all of my parent’s loose change on the thing – so I suppose it served its purpose. The place is a dollar store now. A space is defined by what is in it.
An order of waffles to go, with too much sugar, was dropped at my table with the bill. I was used to picking it up for Jennifer. I had fallen into the habit of bringing her breakfast. I don’t remember how it started. A good deed turned into a chore I suspect. I find it funny how little things can turn sour. After losing my job, I found I couldn’t wait to get to bed at night. The dreams weren’t particularly pleasant, but they were better than my thoughts. The result of my early nights was early mornings, something Jen didn’t share. She was a self proclaimed night owl – a defender of the wall in a past life.
I had met her at night. I walked into the first bar I could find with dim lighting, tequila, and no resonant thrum of repetitive bass. The place was exactly what I needed – worn wood and low expectations. As a bonus, there was a constant stream of 90s rock playing from behind the bar. The music of my youth was welcoming and a reminder of my failure. No matter how many times people tell you not to wallow, don’t listen. It’s alright to feel like shit sometimes. You have to face your failure eventually.
Jen was the one thing I wasn’t looking for that night. She sidled up to me and started talking. I didn’t even look up for the first twenty minutes. By midnight I had heard her whole life story, including the realisation that she was psychic and her premonition about me. She wanted to help me, I wanted to throttle her. But I didn’t and the next night I was back at the bar, and the next. It only took a few weeks before I started helping her with cases – though back then they weren’t so much cases as vague attempts at helping strangers.
I finished my coffee and grabbed the to-go container. The snow was still falling – deepening on the ground. I wished I still had boots. I lost most of my things to debt and apathy. I regretted that, but tried not to. I left with another acerbic nod, holding the waffles under my coat. I don’t know why I felt the need to protect the white styrofoam, but they were warm.
The walk to Jen’s apartment was short – a block in one direction, two in another. My face was red and wet from the soaked snow, my hair was drenched. I pressed the code to her place – a one room heap of things. Her sleepy voice crackled in the speaker, telling me to come up. She was still in bed when I walked into her place. Either she never locked her door, or she got up to open it for me.
She had fallen asleep again so I sat at the edge of the bed. She had a chair somewhere under piles of clothes, but I never bothered with the archaeological dig to recover it. I fell asleep waiting. I woke up a few hours later with Jen’s arm draped over me. She was always quick with hugs and more affection than I was comfortable with, but it always seemed innocent. On my part it was.
I moved her hand, hoping not to wake her, but she already was. She laughed, startling me. I jumped out of bed and stood across the room. I told her, her waffles were cold and left. It had stopped snowing. What had accumulated was melting, leaving large puddles. I made it back to the office with only one soaked foot. The Russian restaurant was empty.
There was a note taped to the door of the building.
I need your help!! My dog is missing!!!
It was the typical sort of thing we got. The area crowd had learned to leave notes. Missing pets, grieving – and greedy – widows, lost items, we dealt in the really small time. I came to admit that Jen had a gift. She really could see things, sometimes. For the rest of the time, I took up the slack. It had been working well up to that point, but that damn note opened up something I wasn’t ready to deal with.