Friday, November 16, 2012

Painting Judge

Painting Judge

In his youth M. Van Gogh had a fiery complexion and  bright copper hair. When he was a child, his mother, in an unprecedented moment of levity, described him to her husband as a cross between a summer sunset and a fire engine. Paterfamilias Van Gogh, who feared that his son’s colouring was a sign of bad things to come, was not amused. However, by the time M. Van Gogh reached sixty the fire had gone out. His hair and beard were snow white, his skin a muddy brown, although in some lights there was an undertint of orange. Age did not affect his eyes. They were the same ice blue as they had been when he was a baby.

If M. Van Gogh had lived the average life span he would have died obscure and penniless. Outside of his intimate circle no one would have known his name and none but a few artists, poor and penniless themselves, would have seen and appreciated his paintings. But by some happenstance he was ‘discovered’ in his fifties and his paintings now sold for amounts which would once have financed he and all the many friends of his youth for a decade. When he reached eighty no one was more surprised than he. He thought for sure that his drinking (he stopped at the age of seventy-five), his mental illness (diagnosed by many psychiatrists as chronic and untreatable) and the years of grinding poverty which accompanied the making of his great paintings, would kill him before he was out of his fifties but they didn’t. He lived on and on until by the age of eighty-five he dwelt in a large house with servants and had so much money in the bank the manager came by three times a year to give him a personal briefing on his account.

At the back of the house was a large yard, much of it filled with flowerbeds. The day after he bought the house he engaged a contractor to build a lean to studio off a blank spot on the back wall. The contractor had visions of a fine palace of a studio but M. Van Gogh stopped him in his tracks. He wanted no fine palaces. He didn’t mind them if they belonged to someone else and he was on a brief visit, but he did not want to own or build one himself. He wanted only the most humble of materials. He wanted a potbellied stove burning both wood and coal. He wanted modest windows with storms for the winter, of course, but he wanted them smallish so that a man could walk up to them and look out with satisfaction yet not so commanding they demanded he look out. When the contractor gave him the price he was astonished. He made a joke about Louis XIV and the extravagance of his royal court but the contractor was not amused. When M. Van Gogh asked around about the price he was told it was reasonable and he had the man go ahead.

As soon as the studio was built (quickly for the building market was depressed and the contractor had his pick of workmen), he spent most of his waking hours there. Summers he spent much of the days outside on a small patio. He joked with his bank manager - a surprisingly humorous man for one following such a profession - usually they were as dour as his dear old father -  that the house was for the servants and except for sleeping and eating he never went into it. He allowed the oldest maid, a second cousin who came to live with him some years before, being destitute and homeless, to clean the studio once a month. That was on the day he climbed into the motorcar for his trip to the sea some ten miles away.

If it was summer he sat on the beach all day, had supper at the hotel and came home. During the winter he walked, one hand on the chauffeur’s elbow, the other on his cane. The chauffeur carried with him a load of blankets and when they reached a certain bench he wrapped his employer in a wool cocoon and M. Van Gogh sat for some hours looking out to sea. It always occurred to him on these occasions that he could have saved himself all the trials and tribulations of being an artist by having become a sailor. He thought of sailors as artists who destained the vulgar claptrap of paint and canvas for the much purer art of simply seeing. Although he knew this to be untrue, in fact to be the worst kind of sentimental nonsense, still, every time he sat on his bench the thought went through his head and for a brief moment he enjoyed it as a child would enjoy the intense taste of his favourite candy.

Sometimes Denise, the second cousin, was still in the studio when he came back. This annoyed M. Van Gogh, for it meant he had to sit patiently listening to his relative’s complaints. Her complaints were complex, involved and legion. So as to kill two birds with one stone he ordered tea brought out on a tray and sat munching cookies while Denise walked the winding road of her illnesses and petty disputes with the other servants. Her monologues were much the same every month and M. Van Gogh sometimes wondered if she were not becoming senile. Other than an occasional hmmm and nodding his head, he made no comment. He had learned years before that interruptions were considered rude and comments were not appreciated. If Denise was still full steam ahead after an hour he unobtrusively removed a pre-measured packet of laudanum from an inside pocket and spilt the contents into his tea. He had learned exactly when to do this so that just as Denise’s voice became like a dentist drill cutting its way through a nerve, the effects of the drug cut in and saved him from excruciating misery. Denise was a good twenty years younger than himself and capable of talking well into the night but after two hours at the most, he pleaded his age and rang for the man servant who helped him to his bedroom.

To be aged and famous, unless one is an egoist, is a burden. Curators and sycophants in the employ of the men who will profit from an increase in the value of your work, spread about them a misty fog of hagiography. Supposedly at the centre of this misty fog is an electrical Prometheus, fire crackling the air around a nimbus of his creative tensions, waiting patiently for the chosen few who will be given the benefit of his steely gaze or even the sacrament of his god like touch. In truth, of course, there is an old man bundled against the chills of old age, in a chair in the corner. At ninety M. Van Gogh succeeded in putting an end to this nonsense by hiring two gardeners who came running at the sounding of a buzzer in their shed and garden. These two men, polite church goers but inexorable in the defence of M. Van Gogh’s privacy, showed all visitors who brushed past the butler to the door and out into the street. Sometimes, in the case of the truly zealous and pressing, they threw them down the front steps and shouted unchurch-like phrases after, for they had found from experience that physical fear was the best guard against repeat performances. Six months of this and the word got round so that now only the occasional unwelcome visitor showed up at the door. Most were given the gardener treatment but on the rare odd day M. Van Gogh would allow them to be ushered into his presence as a kind of tribute to the bad old days. They were mostly art students, feverish and consumed with ecstatic visions. M. Van Gogh spoke with them briefly about the prices of canvas, tubes of paint, brushes, etcetera, gave them a crisp one hundred dollar bill and sent them on their way.

Fame and reputation also brought many invitations, some social which he refused and some professional, which he mostly refused. In his seventies and eighties he had been foolishly moved by the arguments of Highly Responsible persons that a great painter in his dotage had debts to pay to what they called the ‘Great Tradition’. He sat on committees. He went to high profile openings of public expositions. He attended the Royal Family’s Arts Night where he was given a place beside the Prince who during the meal told him many off colour jokes, some mildly amusing but most plain silly. He also acted as the painting judge for this annual event, the successful painting being unveiled after the dinner by the Prince who took advantage of the occasion to tell a few more of his smutty jokes and make a few asides (referred to by his friends as the Royal Person’s zingers) in the same spirit of scatological snickering. All this reminded M. Van Gogh of a relative of the Prince from two centuries before who was famous for caressing the bottoms of duchesses in public and who often, during a reception, suddenly plunged his face into the cleavage of a well endowed young woman. One of the disadvantages of being Royal is that everyone knows your business and the business of your ancestors for even their most banal habits are written up in history books. If you are common, two generations succeeds in wiping the slate clean and the dead can go to their final rest in the fields of oblivion.

At ninety, along with hiring his two gardeners, M. Van Gogh dropped all these ‘Great Tradition’ duties excepting one, the Royal’s Arts Night. The Highly Responsible Persons were in high dudgeon for some months but he paid them no attention. They were, after all, the type of people whose artistic activity consists of eating stale sandwiches, gossiping and discussing fashionable topics under the delusion that their opinions, which they received from the newspapers and sifted with insect –like delicacy until they found a happy mix of the bland and the popular, were of great import. He did not cast all these people from his door for he liked some of them a great deal and set three nights a year to have them for dinner where everyone, including himself, for he was one of them, at least part time, if he was honest with himself, could have a jolly gabfest. But he turned aside all their blandishments about his withdrawal as the talk of the devil. He had a few paintings to finish before he died and the younger ones would have to take his place on the committees.

The Royal Arts Night coming up was special. The Prince was celebrating his thirtieth year hosting the event and, as well, M. Van Gogh celebrated his one hundredth birthday two days before. The media was agog with delight over such a momentous occasion filled with celebrity and significance. M. Van Gogh heard about the media frenzy from friends, most particularly from the young woman student who he paid to give him a weekly summary of arts and political news. He had never read newspapers for he found them hard going. After an hour he felt like a child who had just eaten three cones of cotton candy – regretful and nauseous. M. Legrand, the young woman, however, gave him brief summaries which he could ask her to expand if he so chose. Her summations were masterful and done up with a sly irony unusual in such a young person. They were also enjoyable to listen to for M. Legrand was beautiful and her voice a combination of morning birds singing and grave delicate rhythms of the sea. Although congress with a woman was a matter of memory for him now, he still loved to listen to their melodious voices and even to some of the non melodious voices of the middle aged women who had once been his lovers.

This connection with M. Legrand and the coming Royal Arts Night had recently become somewhat of a delicate matter to him. M. Legrand was a student, an impoverished one, but as well as being a student in the studio of X, an old enemy of M. Van Gogh (from X’s side for M. Van Gogh had never been able to see the use of cultivating enemies), she was an accomplished painter with her own individual style which M. Van Gogh thought showed considerable promise. She had entered a painting in the Royal competition where the winning entry would be unveiled by the potty mouthed Prince on that special night. Her painting was superb, the kind of painting done by the highly talented early in their career which art critics discount because of the painter's youth but in truth are fully mature works granted by a combination of the muse and the energies of youth. M. Van Gogh was the judge of the competition, of course. But if he chose M. Legrand’s entry there would be many who would accuse him of furthering a protégé’s career at the cost of true judgment, or even a mistress’s career, for there were many who claimed the meetings between he and M. Legrand, an hour every week in the library, were, as well as being media summaries, sexual in nature. Of course they were but not in the way these people meant.

M. Legrand herself was the soul of discretion. She never mentioned her entry and indeed, in all of their meetings, some one hundred or so, she had never mentioned the fact that she was a painter. M. Van Gogh disliked talking of painting. He thought it better to look at paintings rather than talk about them. But he paid her so handsomely that it was obvious that, as well as paying her for her services, he was subsidizing her studies. Not that they spoke of this. Every week in the envelope given her by the butler as she left the house there was a generous amount above the agreed upon payment.

That year there were four hundred and fifty-five entries. The Prince’s agents placed them on easels and spread them around the grand hall for M. Van Gogh to look at. And look he did for he was the most conscientious of judges. He thought it his sacred duty to gaze at each one with the intense but kindly eye the painters themselves might turn upon it in an unguarded moment of self appreciation. This took him a month, visiting the grand hall every day, for at one hundred years of age M. Van Gogh, although surprisingly vigorous both physically and intellectually, no longer had the energy of early old age. He had two hours in the hall at his best, viewing and taking notes and then he went home. With four days left, after reviewing his notes, he chose twenty paintings which he then spent these last days looking at over and over again. M. Legrand’s was one of these paintings.

The day before the Gala, after listening to M. Legrand’s media summary without interrupting (he was tired and longed for his afternoon nap) he asked her,

“Are you going to the Art’s Night?”

“Well, I have received an invitation,” said M. Legrand, “but no.”

“And why not?”

“Clothes,” replied M. Legrand.

M. Van Gogh felt suddenly ashamed. How could he have missed such an obvious thing? He, a man who had spent forty years wearing rags and patches? He thought of apologizing but then thought better of it. Instead he rose, excused himself for a moment and left the room. He came back a few moments later and said,

“That will be all for today, M. Legrand. Thank you and I will see you tomorrow evening.”

M. Legrand left the room with her usual liquid grace and M. Van Gogh took the elevator upstairs to his bedroom to have his nap. When M. Legrand arrived at the room she rented near X’s studio she found the envelope contained far more than usual. She went out right away to a second hand shop and bought herself the necessities. The dress had to be altered but this for her was a pleasure – she loved working with needle and thread as much as she loved painting.

The Prince, of course, was delighted that the winner of that year’s prize was a beautiful young woman. Usually the winners were grizzled old veterans of the trenches of art, their eyes filled with a strange combination of obsequiousness and paranoid aggression. How much more pleasant to gaze upon this young woman in full bloom, her eyes filled with a smiling clarity, dressed in a stunning classical gown perhaps given her by an older lover, a man of wealth and influence not unlike the Prince himself. So impressed was he that he did not make his usual jokes, perhaps fearing that they would put him in a bad light before this young woman of refined sensibilities. His sycophants were disappointed that they were given no ‘zingers’ to pass around at the after event parties but they solved this problem by recycling some from years before.

A week later when M. Legrand finished her summary, M. Van Gogh asked,

“Has he sent you a message?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“I thought he would,” said M. Van Gogh. “He’s not a man to hesitate or delay. Have you decided?”

“No. I vacillate. I have a lover, a painter my own age. But he is as penniless as I.”

“I can look after this for you if you like. I don’t mean the Prince. You will deal with him as you like. I mean the money. Don’t answer in words. I know it is painful. If you are willing then simply nod.”

M. Legrand hesitated for a few seconds and then nodded.

“Fine, then,” said M. Van Gogh. “But there is one condition. The money will be deposited in your account. Leave the number with Jacob. The condition is that you are not to tell your lover you have capital. Tell him I give you a monthly income out of respect for your talent. Surely he will not look upon a hundred year old man as competition. I ask this because in a long life I have seen many women besotted by men who spent their money. You need it for something more long lasting than individual human beings – your painting. People change their feelings and they die but for as long as you can pick up a brush you have the painting. When I die you will be released from your promise, a release obviously not far in the future.”

M. Legrand looked at him for a long time but said nothing.

“You agree, then?” asked M. Van Gogh.

M.Legrand nodded. And so it was done.

One year later, at the Royal Arts Night, M. Van Gogh was approached by the Prince after  dinner. They stood in a small alcove off from the main hall, the Prince’s escort of dear ole pals attending at a distance, in respect, perhaps, for such an historic and august meeting between the embodied traditions of art and power.

“That young woman who won the prize last year,” said the Prince, “I forget her name…”

“M. Legrand, your Excellency,” said M. Van Gogh.

“Yes, M. Legrand. She seems quite a queer bird. I sent her a note and she didn’t reply.”

“Ahh,” said M. Van Gogh.

“I thought perhaps the first note had gone astray so I sent another. Three others in fact but still no reply.”

“Perhaps, your Excellency, you will allow my vast age to excuse my boldness, but what was in the notes you sent her?”

“Well….,” replied the Prince, “I asked her for a private meeting, a dinner tete a tete.”

“She’s very religious your Excellency and has a fiancé. So you can see why it would be impossible for her to reply. If you really want to see her I would suggest you invite her to a social occasion along with her fiancé. If you did that I’m sure you would get a reply.”

“Religious, eh? Well, we could all use a little more of that couldn’t we? Tempest Fugit and all.”

“No doubt your Excellency.”

But the Prince didn’t send another note. Other than the gala he never invited artists to social occasions. They were like glaciers, exuding chilly disapproval and looking down their noses at those not kissed by the holy god of art. Too bad that such a beauty was lost to him but there are plenty of others who were not, weren't there? Lots of other fish in the sea and all that.


Sunday, November 11, 2012



No one thought Barry Erkin would ever become a policeman. He lacked the manichaean point of view, and, even as a child, had no interest in projecting his ideas on others. He was a ‘laissez faire’ sort of person, one who left others alone and in turn wanted to be left alone himself. “Barry will be a accountant,” everyone said, “or a fireman.” But when he reached the age of eighteen he applied for the Police Academy and was admitted.

Erkin papa was a plumber but he and his wife had so many children, after plumbing all day, he worked evenings at the pig works slaughtering pigs. As a result he smelt like a dead, slightly rotting pig and no amount of scrubbing in the big tub could made him smell otherwise. Even dousing himself with cheap deodorants merely made him smell like a dead pig sprinkled with perfume. As one can imagine from his work schedule, which in those days included Saturday, he hardly knew his children. When he rose in the morning they were asleep and when he came home at night they were asleep. When he came down into the kitchen on Sunday mornings and found it filled with children, all of whom became suddenly silent when their father walked into the room, he was surprised. For the last six days he had forgotten they existed. The children saw their father as an unpredictable and violent man, which was true. The kitchen emptied out and he sat down in glorious solitude at the table while his wife served him a huge, working man breakfast.

Barry was the second last of the boys. All told there were six boys and seven girls, the boys rough and ready with great, meaty paws like their father and the girls delicate faced but with strong, sturdy bodies able to defend themselves so fiercely even the bigger boys left them alone. Five of the girls became famous neighbourhood beauties. Two, scorning such a prize, dressed in a deliberately dowdy way all through childhood and early womanhood. One became a doctor and the other a political activist.

During his school years Barry was known as ‘the quiet Erkin’, which is understandable given that the rest were so noisy and boisterous. He liked sports but preferred games like swimming and track where individual skills were the center point and there was a minimum of group togetherness. Paradoxically, of all the Erkin boys, he grew to be the largest and most powerful and yet the one least interested in scrapping and bickering. He would defend himself, however. When he was in grade school he was expelled for a month for breaking a bully's nose. This made those who thrived on tormenting shy, seemingly incapable boys, leave him alone.

Erkin papa thought nothing of giving his boys a backhand slap when they were almost grown and when they were small he punished them by beating them with his belt, a monstrous thing three inches wide. But he treated Barry differently. There was something about the way the boy looked at him that made him hesitate. Since Barry was an obedient boy the question of correction seldom arose but once, when Barry was nine, his father gave him the strap treatment. During his beating the boy never uttered the slightest sound which so infuriated his father that he beat him all the more, so much so that his wife tackled her own husband in the boy’s defence. When his father unhanded him to fend off his wife, Barry ran out of the house and did not come back for three days. When he did come back Mrs. Erkin was beside herself with joy but while she was weeping and fondling and kissing him, Barry was staring at his father with undisguised hatred. After that, for the occasional punishment required, the old man gave Barry extra chores or made him stay in the yard for a day.

The Police Academy teachers thought highly of Barry. He was intelligent, quick, physically capable, polite and deferential. He graduated at the top of his class. As was usual he spent three years as a regular constable stationed in the city, learning the ropes. In his fourth year he was sent back to the Academy to do the Detective course and when this was finished appointed an assistant Detective under an older man, soon to retire. This was a great honour  because the older Detective was a legend and the scuttlebutt was that Barry had been hand picked to succeed him.

Barry and the old man, Frederich Delany, got along fine. Neither liked small talk. Neither drank. Neither went to church. Both loved to go on long walks and sit quietly in sidewalk cafes drinking coffee. Both liked to play chess and read complicated scientific books. One might be tempted to say they were like father and son but this would be inaccurate for Frederick, right from the beginning, accepted Barry as an equal. If he had anything to teach the younger man he did it in a bluff, factual way which seemed to assume it was a mere oversight of the cosmic order that Barry did not already know it. He put on no airs. His main method of teaching was giving Barry old dossiers to read and then discussing them with him while they went through the old section of the city for a long walk. In other words he walked him through past experience, the only way to teach anyone anything.

Detective work, unlike the way it is depicted in most fiction, is often boring. Writing endless reports and long interviews going nowhere compose the bulk of a Detective’s day. But it has its perks. Free meals at restaurants where the credentials of the kitchen staff are best left unexamined is one. During lull periods, wandering about the city enjoying oneself while claiming to be working is another.

 A typical Detective murder case goes like this. A call comes to the station. The Detective and partner are sent to an address. The technicians are already there, gathering their harvest of evidence, so the partners sit on the step outside until they are finished. Then, in they go to look at the body, inert of course, and very dead. Dead bodies don’t bother them for they have already seen many dozens. They do not burden themselves with modern notions that they are somehow responsible, ‘if only they had’ or ‘if only society was somehow differently structured’ and all that. That’s for the hand wringers and they are not hand wringers. After looking about for a bit they instruct the uniforms to find the husband, the lover, the cuckold, the drinking partner or whatever. Often they don’t have to do this for they are already present, weeping and confessing. Sometimes the uniforms find them at the nearest bar or on a train leaving town or holed up in a hotel three blocks away. They may offer a little resistance but mostly, once they are in the interview room, they spill the beans. Just as they could not resist the impulse to kill, they cannot resist the impulse to unburden themselves. It’s all very sad and sometimes the Detectives empathize but mostly they remain very cool and simply observe. After this has been repeated many times they no longer judge. They may even begin to wonder if all this is not somehow preordained, if some vast chemical process over which individual human beings have no control, has not delivered them here, cop on one side of the desk writing, the murderer on the other side, emotionally distraught, confessing, pleading for understanding, for self justification.

In the first five years of being a Detective, Barry, accompanying Frederick, went to many of these cases. They comprised perhaps eighty or ninety percent of the murder roster. But there was another kind of murder comprising maybe five to ten percent. In these cases the partners would arrive at a taped off alley where a corpse, covered with a white sheet, lay on the bare ground. When the techs were finished they pulled back the sheet and saw the sign – one shot through the head. The victims were sometimes from the underworld, sometimes not. They were sometimes well dressed, with money in their pocket, sometimes not. But they were all shot through the head, usually from the back, by a small caliber pistol, most often a twenty-two. Most were male but there was the occasional female.

The usual procedures were followed. People who lived and worked round about, and intimates of the victim, were questioned but nothing came of these enquiries. Sometimes a person living nearby would say he heard a car backfire at a certain time the previous night. But, even if connected to the shooting, this information was useless. It merely confirmed that someone pulled the trigger and they already knew that. The timing supplied by the witness was usually vague. It could have been ten o’clock; it could have been twelve thirty. Very, very occasionally a witness heard something and then saw a figure walk off down the street. But the description of this figure could have fit perhaps one half of the city’s population, so it too was useless. He was wearing a baggy coat or perhaps it was a sailor’s jacket. He was young but then again he may have been middle aged. He was bulky and strong but perhaps it was the coat made him look that way. As useless as they were, all of these things were written down by uniforms and entered into the dossier.

Ballistic were done on the bullet but they all knew the pistol was now in the river. Tech evidence involving shoe prints, etc, was examined carefully but they all knew the shoes and clothing were also in the river or ashes in a wood stove somewhere outside of town. Of the several hundreds of these kind of murders Frederick had investigating in his career, only two were ‘solved’, each by the higher ups ordering it be pinned on a certain individual who, in reality, had nothing whatsoever to do with it, which means, of course, that none of them were solved.

“Who does them then?” Barry asked one day when they were waiting at a counter for a plate of Chinese food.

“Gangsters settling scores. The odd private citizen hiring a professional killer and somebody else. I suspect that more than half are done by the somebody else.”

“And who is that,” asked Barry.

Frederick looked at him for a long time and then smiled. He didn’t speak. Instead he nodded his head in a northeast direction, one quick nod with the eyes following it intensely. Three blocks away to the northeast was the headquarters of the Secret Police.  

Because of the nod and Frederick’s intensity, Barry asked no more questions. Everyone knew it was unwise to speak of ‘them’ anywhere in public. The restaurant was crowded with workers on their lunch hour. They ate their chop suey in silence and then left to go back to the station.

Three days later they were walking along the banks of the river headed for an interview with the wife of a  merchant. The merchant had disappeared and since he was very prominent, the Chief had sent Frederick out to interview his wife.

“So you think it’s the Secret Police who shoots all those people?” Barry asked.

“I don’t think,” said Frederick. “I know.”

“But I thought they took them to the station and shot them,” said Barry.

“Some,” said Frederich. “The ones they want people to know they shot. The ones they don’t they do it like the gangsters do so everyone thinks it’s the gangsters.”

After Barry had been with him six years Frederich was getting ready to retire. He had already served thirty years, five more than was required for full pension. Recently he and his wife bought a few acres just outside of town. They planned on keeping pigs and chickens and growing a big garden. Barry went out to see it with him one slow afternoon. Flat prairie land with a house just off the dirt road and a rough poplar fence around it. The house needed work and Frederich was going to auctions, looking for a tractor. It was late spring and they sat for an hour in the backyard drinking tea while Frederich told him his plans for the place – a chicken house, a pig barn, but first a screened gazebo because the summer bugs were outrageous.

Three weeks before he was to retire Frederich suddenly disappeared on a day Barry was at a course at the Academy. No one got in touch with him so he didn’t hear about it until he came in the next morning. Taking a younger detective with him he went off on a long walk through the old town asking everyone who knew Frederich - the shopkeepers, the waitresses, etc -  if they had seen him. No one had. The last anyone at the station saw him was the previous morning at ten o’clock. He said he was going for a walk to talk to someone and he left through the front door. When they searched his desk for an appointment note, a phone number, they came up with nothing. Frederick wasn’t good about writing things down. He kept a lot of things in his head.

They found him the next day on the riverbank shot through the head with a twenty-two. No sign of struggle, so the shooter was probably walking with him and suddenly pulled out the pistol and fired. It was a deserted part of the bank where people seldom walked. He was lying a little off the main path, face down. It was late in a very hot, rainless summer and the earth was as hard as concrete, so the Techs got nothing from the ground and nothing from Frederich’s clothing or body. Probably the shooter met him on the path and they went walking. The man never touched him.

“Who?” Barry asked his Chief Inspector.

The Chief Inspector shrugged his shoulders. “Frederich was a secretive man. Who knows what he had going on. You would know better than anyone. You spent the last six years with him.”

Barry was made the Investigating officer. There is a classic set up for such an operation and he set it up but he had little faith it would find anything. Once things were organized he let the cherub cheeked younger detective run it and report to him.  If he were to find an answer it would come from unorthodox methods.

First the gangsters. He made a few phone calls and met with a middle ranked man in a coffee shop where he often had lunch with Frederich. The man told him the organization had no problems with Frederich. He had never been on the payroll but at the same time he had stayed away from certain sensitive cases and the organization had no reason to kill him. “If he was a problem,” said the man, “we would have killed him long ago. Why wait until he was almost retired?” Barry felt the man was telling the truth. The uniforms, who went through Frederich’s papers both at the station and his apartment, found absolutely zilch connecting him to gangsters. This was like Frederich thought Barry. He would be circumspect and cautious but keep himself clean.

So who was he meeting on the riverbank by himself? A snitch? But why would a snitch kill him? There was no benefit to a snitch killing his connection. Did someone kill him for personal reasons? Unlikely Barry thought. Frederick was a smooth operator who genuinely got along with just about everyone. That someone would kill him out of personal pique was very, very unlikely.

So it came around to ‘them’, didn’t it? But that didn’t make sense either. Why would they want to kill Frederich, especially when he would soon retire? Approaching ‘them’, well that was a tricky matter. You didn’t phone them up and ask if they had killed your partner and if so why? The Secret Police were like a hard shelled turtle except the shell extended all the way round. They would talk to you all day, if you let them, squirreling for incidental details about cases and operations but they gave nothing in return. They were like a brick wall, a stainless steel door. They were like priests sworn to secrecy.

But Barry knew a few things. He had been taking computer night courses at the Academy for four years. Frederich called him a computer geek and he had to admit it was true. Last year an older man from the Secret Service had been in one of his courses. He was typical Secret Service type, hard and cautious, tight lipped, but Barry talked to him a few times in the break between sessions. The Service had gone big on computers. They took in the best graduates from the tech schools. The older man wasn’t looking to become a technical expert. There were lots of bright young recruits for that. What he wanted was a general knowledge detailed enough so that he could supervise intelligently. The man, like everyone else in the class, carried a laptop with him. One day while passing his desk Barry noticed the man was on a strange looking site, one tingeing the screen a faint blue colour. Barry memorized the ULR and the user name, George Simil, the name of his classmate. He thought it strange that the man used his real name, or at least the name he gave out in the class as his. He thought a Secret Service Officer would use a codename.

An old neighbourhood pal knew how to find passwords but Barry wouldn’t let him do it on their own computers. Far too dangerous. Like hiding on the riverbank beside a roaring fire. He bought a laptop on the black market. The user name and password belonged to an old man who died a month before in a pensioner’s home.

Barry wouldn’t let his friend try the site. Instead he had him walk him through the steps to find the password. Then he took the laptop to a café with wi fi. It took him two hours of trying but he finally got the password. Then he left the café because he was afraid being on the site might be tracked and there might be a finder truck.

The next night he went to another café. Blue screen. Enter password. Service Interface Files. Frederick P. Delany. The file popped up but to enter you needed Special Sections clearance.

He explained to his friend who told him, “No problem.”

But Barry thought there was. “Do you think finding the password left a track?” he asked his friend.

“Yes, but whether there is anyone looking for tracks is the real question,” answered his friend.

“But if there was then they would find a computer owned by a dead man, sold on the black market so no one knows where it is, right?

“Depends. Central could track its physical location when it’s online but someone would have to go there and catch whoever had it in their possession.”

“What’s the best way to do it then?” asked Barry.

“Get a black market stick and use it outside town. That makes it much much more difficult to track and if you do, to get there,” said his friend.

So that’s what they did. It took Barry’s friend only ten minutes to get Special Sections Clearance. “These guys are still in kindergarten,” he said.

But Barry wouldn’t let him go into the file. He did that himself three days later in a police car late in the afternoon twenty miles outside town, parked on the riverbank. Blue screen. Frederich P. Delany. Files of Operations Officer. Latest. August 12th, Tuesday, the day of Frederich’s death. The page came up slowly revealing a blank rectangle of blue excepting in the center of the page where there was a capital E, a bracket, the numbers 4930, unbracket. Barry stared at this for a full minute. If this meant what he thought it meant he found it hard to believe they would put it in a file but then again why not? They were basically untouchable and if, as Frederich had said, this was a normal every day thing for them, why not? Not wanting to stay on any longer, he exited and went back to the station and home.

He asked his friend the next morning, “When would be the best time to go on and stay on for a while?”

”In the morning,” said his friend with no hesitation.

“Why?” asked Barry.

“Because it’s so busy. The busier it is the less noticeable an aberration. Although I wonder if it would come up as an aberration on their system. It didn’t seem to have any pick ups for this sort of thing when I was on there.”

Barry arranged his schedule so he had a car in the mornings and drove out of town on a different road each day. He spent two hours reading files and then went back to town.

Frederich was an informant. The files were filled with his reports on anything from office politics to the drinking habits of his supervisors. There was even a report on Barry, his political opinions (none), affiliations (none), personality, daily habits. There were pages and pages of this kind of stuff, penny ante, mundane and boring. That Frederich was spying for the Secret Service shocked him but the fact that Frederich had spent many hours, thousands perhaps, writing up these inane, banal reports shocked him even more. The files went back thirty years so he was a snitch right from the beginning. Why? Barry wondered. Maybe he was blackmailed. Or maybe in those days it was expected as a normal, every day part of the job. Maybe everyone did it.

On the fourth day of reading Barry opened a file having to do with the arrest of a prostitute. The older files were handwritten, a paper original scanned into the file but the newer were typewritten. This one was typed. Barry recognized the name of the prostitute. She was the Great Leader’s present mistress and had been so for three years, the longest reign for any of his women. The date on the file was four years ago, so one year before she became the big boss’s mistress. Frederich had arrested her for assaulting a man in a bar. The woman, who must have had considerable strength, had hit the man over the head with a heavy barstool and fractured his skull. He died on the spot. She was jailed and brought to trial. Frederich was the officer supplying evidence and he did an excellent job, as usual. The woman was given ten years hard labor, remitted a short time later to six months minimum security detention. The file was essentially the police report on the incident with comments by Frederick. The comments were scathing. He called the woman a dangerous psychotic, a sociopath. It was his opinion that the state should lock her up and throw away the key.

“So,” Barry said aloud to the empty car, “So.”

“If you let me go up on the file I can probably find you the shooter.” Barry’s friend said when he explained what he found.

They were walking through the old district towards a café to have lunch. Barry was paying which was usual practice. Today he owed his friend a debt but on many other days his friend was simply broke. He spent all his money on computers and programs.

“Why?” asked Barry. “The actual person who pulled the trigger was a professional. ‘Kill this person on Tuesday,’ they said and he did it. He was the means but the real killer was much higher up, right? The real killer was HIM at the instigation of his mistress. What surprises me is that the file is still there on the site. When I checked in police files it was gone. In that year’s arrest lists, nothing, no such name. No Prosecutor’s files under that name. No witness reports. No Supervising Officer reports, nothing, as if, as far as the police are concerned, the woman did not exist; there was no crime, no killing. The whole thing has evaporated. Even the autopsy report on the victim has disappeared.”

“I suppose they don’t have to worry too much,” his friend said. “I mean, who in their right mind would try hacking their site and even if they did what would they do with the information? What use is it to anyone?”

“Well, to me it answered a question which would have bothered me all my life. Not that the answer is a satisfying one, mind you, but at least it’s an answer. As for anyone else, you are right. What would one do, shout it from a street corner until they came to blow your brains out? Write it on bathroom walls until they catch you and beat you to death? Although it is the truth, it is a truth totally useless to anyone, excepting to the big boss and his mistress who gain something from its eradication. To them its value is in its negation.”

The route to the café led over a bridge across the river. When they were in the center of the bridge Barry lifted the laptop strap from  his shoulder and, without checking his stride in the least, tossed it over the rail. A few seconds later they heard the splash. His friend said nothing. It was the natural conclusion to the whole affair, wasn’t it? A dead man’s laptop, a dead cop, a dead man in a bar. It was like putting a period at the end of a very long sentence. You do it and then it’s over and time to start another.