He Started To Laugh
It looked like a bomb had been dropped on it. Papers were scattered helter-skelter like flotsam over the top. Styrofoam coffee cups lay on their sides, coffee spilling out in small brown lakes. An ashtray was brimming over with butts. Folders lay sideways hanging precariously over the edge of his desk. Some had fallen onto the floor. Some had perhaps jumped.
As soon as he fell into his chair, he lit up a cigarette. I could smell death sloshing around in his lungs and then seeping out of his nostrils like some nauseous fumes from a sewer grate.
“Mrs. Wallace?” Detective Brown muttered, smoke scaling the yellow walls of his teeth and falling over his smile. He had mustard stains on his tie. The buttons on his shirt were misplaced and his gut hung loosely over his belt. There were yellow cigarette stains on fingers whose nails had never been properly manicured. He was nothing like my Harold.
“Isn’t that against the law, detective?” I asked gesturing to the stiff like slug that dangled in his lips.
“I will not jeopardize my health, detective,” I said, crossed my arms and clamped my jaw shut. I will not put up with a man who does not listen.
Detective Brown paused for a moment. Then he chuckled, pointing his cigarette at me.
“You are a funny lady,” he said shaking under a deluge of machine gun like coughs.
I did not smile. There was nothing amusing about death.
“Don’t point that thing at me,” I barked.
He looked affectionately at his cigarette.
I continued to speak:
“Do you know, detective, what the statistics are regarding second hand smoke? My Harold smoked for twenty nine years until he gave it up last spring when he caught a touch of flu, but never in those twenty nine years did he smoke a cigarette in my presence, did not even smoke in our house, not even on our lot. He smoked out on the sidewalk, on city property. That’s just the type of man my Harold was. I expect no less from you, detective.”
Detective Brown blushed, shook his head, than butted out his cigarette.
“Thank you,” I responded.
“Would you like a coffee?” Detective Brown asked as he rose from his seat.
I shook my head. I could only imagine the diseases that were festering in the coffee made by a man with mustard on his shirt. My mother had always counseled me not to accept food or beverages from sources that I had not personally inspected. This put something of a crimp on Harold’s and my social life, restaurants, cafes and bars were out of bounds, but I felt that these precautions greatly added to our quality of life. We had avoided all germs, illness of any kind for thirty some years until Harold caught the aforementioned virus the previous spring.
When Detective Brown departed I glanced around his office. It duplicated, even multiplied the destruction on his desk. The doors of his file cabinet were open, files sticking up from them like tongues out of the mouths of dead beasts. Papers and notices stuck to the walls had long ago yellowed. There was a skin of dust on the photographs that hung on the wall, one of which was a photo of a much younger Detective Brown receiving some sort of award from a well dressed official, I believe it was our late mayor. The plants that sat in a holder on the windowsill had long since expired, their dried and withered stems having fallen over the sides of their prison. The garbage can hadn’t been emptied in ages. There were red stains on the floor. I hoped it was ink. The place reeked of death.
Detective Brown returned to the office, placed his coffee on his desk and once again plopped into his chair.
“Did you wash the cup?” I asked.
Detective Brown gave me a puzzled expression. I repeated my question.
“I don’t wash my cup every time I use it,” he finally responded.
“My Harold does. And each evening he lets the cup sit in bleach overnight.”
“I hate bleach,” Detective Brown muttered.
“That is odd,” I responded.
“What’s odd?” Detective Brown asked looking up from the folder he had just opened.
“Not liking bleach. I think it is one of the saving graces of civilization. If every household on the planet would only scour their quarters with bleach we could rid ourselves of evil and all its manifestations.”
I carried on for some time about bleach. Detective Brown listened patiently, nodding as he read the folder in his lap. He wasn’t paying attention to me. I hate that in a man. When I speak to Harold, he puts down whatever he is doing and looks me straight in the eyes. In that way there is no misunderstanding between us. Harold may have his shortcomings, he has no sense of humour – the man hasn’t cracked a smile in thirty years, but he does pay attention.
“I’m sure Mrs. Brown uses bleach to get out those stains in your white shirts not to speak of other unmentionables.”
Detective Brown looked up.
“There is no Mrs. Brown. What unmentionables?”
“You’re single? That explains your terrible posture. If you’d sit up in your chair, you’d greatly improve the impression you’d make on people.”
“Divorced,” Detective Brown explained though I had no interest in his personal life and would have said so if he hadn’t added, “These are very serious charges that have been laid against you, Mrs. Wallace.”
Detective Brown looked up at me from over his glasses and beneath eyebrows that jutted out of his head like small horns. I said nothing. How I loathe the condescending attitude of public officials. My Harold worked for the Works Department of the city for thirty years and not once in that span of time did he speak so irreverently to a member of the public. As Harold told me on more than one occasion, ‘the public pays my wages’.
“Corporal Jason reports that you approached him at 11:30 yesterday evening at Quinn’s Bar and Grill.”
“I thought he could be trusted,” I spat out and turned my head away. “I see now that my good faith was misplaced.”
Detective Brown continued:
“Corporal Jason initially presumed that you were soliciting him for the purposes of sexual favours.”
“Sexual favours!” I barked. “Do I look like the sort of woman…?” I began but sputtered out, exhausted by indignation.
Detective Brown looked up from his folder, appraised me for several moments then spoke.
“No. I don’t know what could have clouded the corporal’s judgment. Perhaps the lighting in the bar was a factor.”
“It’s quite outrageous that police officers would make such an accusation. If this gets back to my dear Harold, he will certainly be meeting with our solicitor.”
“You weren’t charged with solicitation,” Detective Brown responded.
“How could you come to work with that tie?” I asked. It was a dreadful looking tie, red and green with the imprint of a golfer or some male wielding a club of some sort.
“You don’t like my taste in ties,” Detective Brown said smiling, raising his tie in front of his eyes.
“You’ve got mustard stains on it,” I pointed out. “My Harold would never go to work dressed so disheveled. Harold takes some pride in his appearance. Harold has a tie for each day of the week, neatly pressed.”
“Mrs. Wallace, we have more serious issues to resolve than my wardrobe. The corporal reports that you tried to hire him to assassinate someone.”
I sighed deeply.
“What possible business is that of yours?”
“Then you don’t deny it?”
“Could we get this over with, detective. I have to get home and get my Harold’s dinner on the table.”
“It’s against the law to hire someone to murder someone else,” Detective Brown smiled. I could see that he had had extensive dental work done and then for reasons that were still unclear to me, abandoned the project. The detective leaned back in his chair and fished a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and lit it up.
I was about to protest when he raised his hand.
“Don’t say it!” he barked. “This is a very serious charge, Mrs. Wallace. The only reason that you are sitting here now talking to me and not behind bars is that I cannot fathom why a middle-aged woman from a well-to-do household is out trying to hire an assassin.”
“Well-to-do household!” I cried. “I have three grown sons. Do you have any idea how much money it takes to feed a household with four adult males? Of course you don’t! You’re one person living on a detective’s salary while we struggle along on Harold’s meager wages from the city. Harold hasn’t had a raise in five years!”
A tear ran down my cheek. I took a tissue out of my bag and dabbed at it, careful not to ruin the makeup I had so diligently applied only hours earlier.
“But why would you go looking for a hired killer?” the detective asked.
I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. He was such a stupid man.
“Because I couldn’t bare to do it myself!”
There was silence. I looked up at the detective who stared at me, his mouth hanging open.
“When was the last time you saw a dentist?” I asked.
The detective remained speechless.
“Buddy,” I continued, “Buddy is my youngest, Buddy needed some bridge work done. Five thousand dollars is what I was quoted. Harold’s dental plan does not cover bridges. On top of that Frank needs a new computer. Frank is the oldest boy. He started college and we had to put a second mortgage on the house to pay his tuition. Walt is the middle boy. He’s married. We’re supporting him and his wife, Louise. Louise is a lovely girl if only she’d lose some weight. I don’t know how many times I’ve told her that she’s eating herself right into a divorce. I know Walt and he likes a good figure on a girl. And my poor Harold is supporting all of this. The man is a saint. He never complains. He’d give his life for those boys.”
Smoke billowed out of Detective Brown’s mouth like the back end of a city bus.
“I’m afraid you’ve completely lost me, Mrs. Wallace. Answer the question, please! Why did you try and hire a killer?”
“The bills keep mounting up,” I replied.
“The insurance money,” I sighed. “Harold and I purchased these wonderful life insurance plans years ago. Harold is so thoughtful. In the event of his passing, he did not want me to be left destitute.”
The detective stared at me for a moment, then butted out his cigarette.
“Maybe we’d better get your lawyer in here,” he said rising from his chair.
I shook my head.
“We can’t afford a lawyer,” I said.
“Mrs. Wallace, these are very serious charges. You’ve tried to hire someone to kill your husband for his life insurance.”
“No!” I cried. “How could you think that I would have my husband killed for money? It was just fortunate that Harold had the foresight to make arrangements.”
The detective looked puzzled.
“Why did you want to kill your husband then?” he asked towering over me like a skyscraper.
“Do you believe in evil, detective?” I asked.
The detective slid back in his chair. Smoke curled up from the smoldering cigarette butt in the ashtray, tickling his eyelids. He blinked.
“It was such a lovely morning, the sky clear and blue. I heard the news on the radio. An airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Terrible accident, I thought to myself. I was making breakfast for Harold. He was having a shower. I switched the television on; we have one in the kitchen. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was like a Hollywood movie. I fell into a chair. How could anyone do such a thing? I asked myself. All those innocent people! The screams for help, the broken glass, the twisted metal. Pure evil had taken over the souls of those terrible men.”
“Yes, a horrible deed,” the detective nodded impatiently.
“Those men were evil. Someone should have noticed, should have stopped them before they… There must have been signs. No one did anything.”
Detective Brown interrupted me.
“What has this to do with you trying to hire someone to kill your husband?”
I looked at the detective. He didn’t understand. How could the man be so stupid?
“He had to be stopped. Harold, my dear Harold, had to be stopped.”
“Stopped from what?” the detective cried, his voice rising in indignation.
I continued: “The toast began to burn. The smoke alarm went off. Harold came running in from the bathroom just as the second tower was struck by the second plane.”
“What has this to do with your husband?”
I looked at the detective. For a moment I hesitated. I dared not bare this awful truth about my Harold.
“What?” the detective cried.
I swallowed deeply.
“My Harold… he started to laugh.”