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The expert detective’s pursuit will go unnoticed, but not because he is unremarkable. Rather, like the suspect’s shadow, he will appear as though he is meant to be there.
Lest details be mistaken for clues, note that Mr. Charles Unwin, lifetime resident of this city, rode his bicycle to work every day, even when it was raining. He had contrived a method to keep his umbrella open while pedaling, by hooking the umbrella’s handle around the bicycle’s handlebar. This method made the bicycle less maneuverable and reduced the scope of Unwin’s vision, but if his daily schedule was to accommodate an unofficial trip to Central Terminal for unofficial reasons, then certain risks were to be expected.
Though inconspicuous by nature, as a bicyclist and an umbrellist Unwin was severely evident. Crowds of pedestrians parted before the ringing of his little bell, mothers hugged their children near, and the children gaped at the magnificence of his passing. At intersections he avoided eye contact with the drivers of motor vehicles, so as not to give the impression he might yield to them. Today he was behind schedule. He had scorched his oatmeal, and tied the wrong tie, and nearly forgotten his wristwatch, all because of a dream that had come to him in the moments before waking, a dream that still troubled and distracted him. Now his socks were getting wet, so he pedaled even faster.
He dismounted on the sidewalk outside the west entrance of Central Terminal and chained his bicycle to a lamppost. The revolving doors spun ceaselessly, shunting travelers out into the rain, their black umbrellas blooming in rapid succession. He collapsed his own umbrella and slipped inside, checking the time as he emerged into the concourse.
His wristwatch, a gift from the Agency in recognition of twenty years of faithful service, never needed winding and was set to match—to the very second—the time reported by the four– faced clock above the information booth at the heart of Central Terminal. It was twenty–three minutes after seven in the morning. That gave him three minutes exactly before the woman in the plaid coat, her hair pinned tightly under a gray cap, would appear at the south entrance of the terminal.
He went to stand in line at the breakfast cart, and the man at the front of the line ordered a coffee, two sugars, no cream.
“Slow today, isn’t it?” Unwin said, but the man in front of him did not respond, suspecting, perhaps, a ruse to trick him out of his spot.
In any case it was better that Unwin avoid conversation. If someone were to ask why he had started coming to Central Terminal every morning when his office was just seven blocks from his apartment, he would say he came for the coffee. But that would be a lie, and he hoped he never had to tell it.
The tired– looking boy entrusted with the steaming machines of the breakfast cart—Neville, according to his name tag—stirred sugar into the cup one spoonful at a time. The man waiting for his coffee, two sugars, no cream, glanced at his watch, and Unwin knew without looking that the woman in the plaid coat would be here, or rather there, at the south end of the concourse, in less than a minute. He did not even want the coffee. But what if someone were to ask why he came to Central Terminal every morning at the same time, and he said he came for the coffee, but he had no coffee in his hand? Worse than a lie is a lie that no one believes.
When it was Unwin’s turn to place his order, Neville asked him if he wanted cream or sugar.
“Just coffee. And hurry, please.”
Neville poured the coffee with great care and with greater care fitted the lid onto the cup, then wrapped it in a paper napkin. Unwin took it and left before the boy could produce his change.
Droves of morning commuters sleepwalked to a murmur of station announcements and newspaper rustle. Unwin checked his ever– wound, ever– winding watch, and hot coffee seeped under the lid and over his fingers. Other torments ensued. His briefcase knocked against his knees, his umbrella began to slip from under his arm, the soles of his shoes squeaked on the marble floor. But nothing could divert him. He had never been late for her. Here now was the lofty arch of Gate Fourteen, the time twenty– six minutes after seven. And the woman in the plaid coat, her hair pinned tightly under a gray cap, tumbled through the revolving doors and into the heavy green light of a Central Terminal morning.
She shook water from her umbrella and gazed up at the vaulted ceiling, as though at a sky that threatened more rain. She sneezed, twice, into a gloved hand, and Unwin noted this variation on her arrival with the fervency of an archivist presented with newly disclosed documents. Her passage across the terminal was unswerving. Thirty–nine steps (it was never fewer than thirty– eight, never more than forty) delivered her to her usual spot, several paces from the gate. Her cheeks were flushed, her grip on her umbrella very tight. Unwin drew a worn train schedule from his coat pocket. He feigned an interest in the schedule while together (alone) they waited.
How many mornings before the first that he saw her had she stood there? And whose face did she hope to find among the disembarking host? She was beautiful, in the quiet way that lonely, unnoticed people are beautiful to those who notice them. Had someone broken a promise to her? Willfully, or due to unexpected misfortune? As an Agency clerk, it was not for Unwin to question too deeply, nor to conduct anything resembling an investigation. Eight days ago he had gone to Central Terminal, had even purchased a ticket because he thought he might like to leave town for a while. But when he saw the woman in the plaid coat, he stayed. The sight of her had made him wonder, and now he found he could not stop wondering. These were unofficial trips, and she was his unofficial reason; that was all.
A subterranean breeze blew up from the tracks, ruffling the hem of her coat. The seven twenty– seven train, one minute late as usual, arrived at the terminal. A pause, a hiss: the gleaming doors slid open. A hundred and more black raincoats poured all at once from the train and up through the gate. The stream parted as it met her. She stood on her toes, looking left and right.
The last of the raincoats rushed past. Not one of them had stopped for her.
Unwin returned the schedule to his pocket, put his umbrella under his arm, picked up his briefcase, his coffee. The woman’s solitude had gone undisturbed: should he have felt guilty for being relieved? So long as no one stopped for her, her visits to Central Terminal would continue, and so would his. Now, as she began her walk back to the revolving doors, he followed, matching his pace to hers so he would pass only a few steps behind her on his way to his bicycle.
He could see the wisps of brown hair that had escaped from under her cap. He could count the freckles on the back of her neck, but the numbers meant nothing; all was mystery. As he had the previous morning, and the seven mornings before that, Unwin willed with all the power in his lanky soul that time, like the train at the end of its track, would stop.
This morning it did. The woman in the plaid coat dropped her umbrella. She turned and looked at him. Her eyes—he had never seen them so close—were the clouded silver of old mirrors. The numbered panels on the arrival and departure boards froze. The station announcements ceased. The four second hands on the four faces of the clock trembled between numbers. The insides of Unwin’s ever– wound wristwatch seized.
He looked down. Her umbrella lay on the floor between them. But his hands were full, and the floor was so far away.
Someone behind him said, “Mr. Charles Unwin?”
The timetables came back to life, the clocks remembered themselves, the station resumed its murmuring. A plump man in a herringbone suit was staring at him with green– yellow eyes. He danced the big fingers of his right hand over the brim of a hat held in his left. “Mr. Charles Unwin,” he said again, not a question this time.
The woman in the plaid coat snatched up her umbrella and walked away. The man in the herringbone suit was still waiting.
“The coffee,” Unwin began to explain.
The man ignored him. “This way, Mr. Unwin,” he said, and gestured with his hat toward the north end of the terminal. Unwin glanced back, but the woman was already lost to the revolving doors.
What could he do but follow? This man knew his name—he might also know his secrets, know he was making unofficial trips for unofficial reasons. He escorted Unwin down a long corridor where men in iron chairs read newspapers while nimble boys shined their shoes.
“Where are we going?”
“Someplace we can talk in private.”
“I’ll be late for work.”
The man in the herringbone suit flipped open his wallet to reveal an Agency badge identifying him as Samuel Pith, Detective. “You’re on the job,” Pith said, “starting this moment. That makes you a half hour early, Mr. Unwin.”
They came to a second corridor, dimmer than the first, blocked by a row of signs warning of wet floors. Beyond, a man in gray coveralls slid a grimy– looking mop over the marble in slow, indeliberate arcs. The floor was covered with red and orange oak leaves, tracked in, probably, by a passenger who had arrived on one of the earlier trains from the country.
Detective Pith cleared his throat, and the custodian shuffled over to them, pushed one of the signs out of the way, and allowed the two to pass.
The floor was perfectly dry. Unwin glanced into the custodian’s bucket. It was empty.
“Listen carefully, now,” said Detective Pith. He emphasized the words by tapping his hat brim against Unwin’s chest. “You’re an odd little fellow. You’ve got peculiar habits. Every morning this week, same time, there’s Charles Unwin, back at Central Terminal. Not for a train, though. His apartment is just seven blocks from the office.”
“I come for the—”
“Damn it, Unwin, don’t tell me. We like our operatives to keep a few mysteries of their own. Page ninety–six of theManual.”
“I’m no operative, sir. I’m a clerk, fourteenth floor. And I’m sorry you’ve had to waste your time. We’re both behind schedule now.”
“I told you,” Pith growled, “you’re already on the job. Forget the fourteenth floor. Report to Room 2919. You’ve been promoted.” From his coat pocket Pith drew a slim hardcover volume, green with gold lettering:The Manual of Detection.“Standard issue,” he said. “It’s saved my life more than once.”
Unwin’s hands were still full, so Pith slipped the book into his briefcase.
“This is a mistake,” Unwin said.
“For better or worse, somebody has noticed you. And there’s no way now to get yourself unnoticed.” He stared at Unwin a long moment. His substantial black eyebrows gathered downward, and his lips went stiff and frowning. But when he spoke, his voice was quieter, even kind. “I’m supposed to keep this simple, but listen. Your first case should be an easy one. Hell, mine was. But you’re in this thing a little deeper, Unwin. Maybe because you’ve been with the Agency so long. Or maybe you’ve got some friends, or some enemies. It’s none of my business, really. The point is—”
“Please,” said Unwin, checking his watch. It was seven thirty– four.
Detective Pith waved one hand, as though to clear smoke from the air. “I’ve already said more than I should have. The point is, Unwin, you’re going to need a new hat.”
The green trilby was Unwin’s only hat. He could not imagine wearing anything else on his head.
Pith donned his own fedora and tipped it forward. “If you ever see me again, you don’t know me. Got it?” He snapped a finger at the custodian and said, “See you later, Artie.” Then the herringbone suit disappeared around the corner.
The custodian had resumed his work, mopping the dry floor with his dry mop, moving piles of oak leaves from one end of the corridor to the other. In the reports Unwin received each week from Detective Sivart, he had often read of those who, without being in the employ of the Agency, were nonetheless aware of one or more aspects of a case—who were, as the detective might write, “in on it.” Could the custodian be one of those?
His name tag was stitched with red, curving letters.
“Mr. Arthur, sir?” Arthur continued working, and Unwin had to hop backward to escape the wide sweep of his mop. The custodian’s eyes were closed, his mouth slightly open. And he was making a peculiar sound, low and whispery. Unwin leaned closer, trying to understand the words.
But there were no words, there was nothing to understand. The custodian was snoring.
Outside, Unwin dropped his coffee in a trash can and glanced downtown toward the Agency’s gray, monolithic headquarters, its uppermost stories obscured by the rain. Years ago he had admitted to himself that he did not like the look of the building: its shadow was too long, the stone of its walls cold and somehow like that of a tomb. Better, he thought, to work inside a place like that than to glimpse it throughout the day.
To make up for lost time, he risked a shortcut down an alleyway he knew was barely wide enough to accommodate his open umbrella. The umbrella’s metal nubs scraped against both walls as the bicycle bumped and jangled over old cobblestone.
He had already begun drafting in his mind the report that would best characterize his promotion, and in this draft the word “promotion” appeared always between quotation marks, for to let it stand without qualification would be to honor it with too much validity. Errors were something of a rarity at the Agency. It was a large organization, however, composed of a great many bureaus and departments, most of them beyond Unwin’s purview. In one of those bureaus or departments, it was clear, an error had been committed, overlooked, and worst of all, disseminated.
He slowed his pace to navigate some broken bottles left strewn across the alley, the ribs of his umbrella bending against the walls as he turned. He expected at any moment to hear the fateful hiss of a popped tire, but he and his bicycle passed unscathed.
This error that Pith had brought with him to Central Terminal—it was Unwin’s burden now. He accepted it, if not gladly, then encouraged by the knowledge that he, one of the most experienced clerks of the fourteenth floor, was best prepared to cope with such a calamity. Every page of his report would intimate the fact. The superior who reviewed the final version, upon finishing, would sit back in his chair and say to himself, “Thank goodness it was Mr. Charles Unwin, and not some frailer fellow, to whom this task fell.”
Unwin pedaled hard to keep from swerving and shot from the other end of the alley, a clutch of pigeons bursting with him into the rain.
In all his days of employment with the Agency, he had never encountered a problem without a solution. This morning’s episode, though unusual, would be no exception. He felt certain the entire matter would be settled before lunchtime.
But even with such responsibilities before him, Unwin found himself thinking of the dream he had dreamed before waking, the one that had rattled and distracted him, causing him to scorch his oatmeal and nearly miss the woman in the plaid coat.
He was by nature a meticulous dreamer, capable of sorting his nocturnal reveries with a lucidity he understood to be rare. He was unaccustomed to the shock of such an intrusive vision, one that seemed not at all of his making, and more like an official communiqué.
In this dream he had risen from bed and gone to take a bath, only to find the bathtub occupied by a stranger, naked except for his hat, reclining in a thick heap of soap bubbles. The bubbles were stained gray around his chest by the ashes from his cigar. His flesh was gray, too, like smudged newsprint, and a bulky gray coat was draped over the shower curtain. Only the ember of the stranger’s cigar possessed color, and it burned so hot it made the steam above the tub glow red.
Unwin stood in the doorway, a fresh towel over his arm, his robe cinched tight around his waist. Why, he wondered, would someone go through all the trouble of breaking in to his apartment, just to get caught taking a bath?
The stranger said nothing. He lifted one foot out of the water and scrubbed it with a long– handled brush. When he was done, he soaped the bristles, slowly working the suds into a lather. Then he scrubbed the other foot.
Unwin bent down for a better look at the face under the hat brim and saw the heavy, unshaven jaw he knew only from newspaper photographs. It was the Agency operative whose case files were his particular responsibility.
“Detective Sivart,” Unwin said, “what are you doing in my bathtub?”
Sivart let the brush fall into the water and took the cigar from his teeth. “No names,” he said. “Not mine anyway. Don’t know who might be listening in.” He relaxed deeper into the bubbles. “You have no idea how difficult it was to arrange this meeting, Unwin. Did you know they don’t tell us detectives who our clerks are? All these years I’ve been sending my reports to the fourteenth floor. To you, it turns out. And you forget things.”
Unwin put up his hands to protest, but Sivart waved his cigar at him and said, “When Enoch Hoffmann stole November twelfth, and you looked at the morning paper and saw that Monday had gone straight into Wednesday, you forgot Tuesday like all the rest of them.”
“Even the restaurants skipped their Tuesday specials,” Unwin said.
Sivart’s ember burned hotter, and more steam rose from the tub. “You forgot my birthday, too,” he said. “No card, no nothing.”
“Nobody knows your birthday.”
“You could have figured it out. Anyway, you know my cases better than anyone. You know I was wrong about her, all wrong. So you’re the best chance I’ve got. Try this time, would you? Try to remember something. Remember this: Chapter Eighteen. Got it?”
“Say it back to me: Chapter Eighteen.”
“Chapter Elephant,” Unwin said, in spite of himself.
“Hopeless,” Sivart muttered.
Normally Unwin never could have said “Elephant” when he meant to say “Eighteen,” not even in his sleep. Hurt by Sivart’s accusations, he had blurted the wrong word because, in some dusty file drawer of his mind, he had long ago deposited the fact that elephants never forget.
“The girl,” Sivart was saying, and Unwin had the impression that the detective was getting ready to explain something important. “I was wrong about her.”
Then, as though summoned to life by Unwin’s own error, there came trumpeting, high and full—the unmistakable decree of an elephant.
“No time!” Sivart said. He drew back the shower curtain behind the tub. Instead of a tiled wall, Unwin saw the whirling lights of carnival rides and striped pavilions beneath which broad shapes hunkered and leapt. There were shooting galleries out there, and a wheel of fortune, and animal cages, and a carousel, all moving, all turning under turning stars. The elephant trumpeted again, only this time the sound was shrill and staccato, and Unwin had to switch off his alarm clock to make it stop.