Dawn broke like a slow to warm up energy saving light bulb being hit with a sledgehammer. I watched the grey light seep it's way across the maze of grey streets from the grey-smudged window of my apartment- magnolia, with accents of grey. The steaming coffee in my hand reminded me of the inhabitants below. Dark. Bitter. Strangely pungent.
The phone rang. I picked up.
“Dick here,” I told the receiver.
“We've had a message come in,” said Sally, ”Someone wants you to investigate a break-in up on 5th. Shall I come pick you up?”
“See you in ten,” I replied.
“But it takes-” Sally started, but I had already hung up.
That was the business in this city- always moving. Another day, another crime. I downed the coffee dregs, grabbed my trench coat and fedora from the hat stand and hit the street.
Sally was a sweet young thing. I'd taken her on at the agency at the request of her father. It may have started as a favour, but she'd proven herself useful to have around. She was still naive in the ways of the world, a little wet behind the ears perhaps, but there was no denying she'd already caught it, and caught it bad. Investigating. Like a tropical disease, it was in your blood. You either had the knack for it, or you didn't. The tick of detectoring had taken a chomp at her jugular and, even if it had not yet gorged itself and grown fat, the infection was setting in. Soon she would be riddled with it and I might find myself defunct, discarded, replaced by a younger, prettier model. I had to admit- I wasn't getting any younger. Of course, neither was Sally, but dames have creams for that kind of thing. Like a flea bitten mongrel, I could feel the pedigree racers of the new generation nipping at my tail, but there was life in the old dog yet. This jaded old man stiIl had a few tricks up his sleeve, a few nuggets of wisdom to impart.
We sailed down central boulevard, highrises lined up like dominoes on either side. That was my city- a giant game of mousetrap ready to come crashing down around the little guy at the slightest nudge of the table, hastily reassembled from whatever was lying around. Anyone who thinks the big cheeses play sophisticated games like chess with the world is putting far too much faith in their elected officials.
Sally tapped out a staccato tune on the wheel as she drove. She was a fine driver all things considered, but the purpose of the flashing lights on the rear bumper and their connection to the stick by her hand would be the one mystery she would never solve. I stared out of the passenger side window as seedy storefronts flashed by, most with graffiti splashed shutters still down. I found my hand creeping of its own volition to the inside pocket of my jacket. The battered cardboard package within rattled alluringly. Next moment, a cigarette had slipped itself into my hand. Sally glanced across, judging.
“You said you didn’t smoke,” she said, as we swung out- unannounced- onto avenue.
“I don’t,” I said, hanging the roll up from the corner of my mouth.
I chewed idly on the cigarette, but it just wasn’t the same. Disappointed, I rolled down the window and flicked the thing out.
“What a waste,” Sally said, seemingly at my casual littering, but I knew what she meant.
Fifth avenue. Once the bustling heart of this neighbourhood, now all that remained were the hollowed out concrete shells of its former self. Life had been sweeter back then. Decent, hardworking people had done their best as the weight of the world bore down on them and the filth rose up. Now they did what they could, what they had to, and who could blame them? What a waste indeed...
Still, one shining beacon remained on this soulless street. It was outside of this establishment that Sally ground the car to a halt. I stepped out, feeling something crunch beneath my shoe, and looked up at the building’s facade. Batch made in Heaven. The pastel pink paint was partially peeling, but the name alone made my stomach growl louder than a Tom cat faced with a mirror. Above the shop front, a curtain twitched closed.
“Interesting,” I muttered, stirring a few tiny fragments of glass with my toe.
The bell rang as the door swung closed behind us. Enough woman to make two Sallys appeared from the back room. This was the dame folks would queue down the block to see, the sight of whose snickerdoodles could make a man’s knees go weak. There were no such delicacies behind the counter today.
“Morning, Sweetcheeks. How’s business?”
“We’re closed,” Bertha ‘Sweetcheeks’ Barnes said, crossing her doughy arms.
I reached inside my jacket and flashed my badge.
“Dick Daversham,” I say, ”Private Investigator.”
“I know who you are, Mr Daversham,” Bertha said, “Two triple choc chunk and an oatmeal and raisin, right?”
“That’s right, ma’am. Though these days I’m watching my figure, so easy on the raisins.”
“Ha ha,” Bertha said flatly, obviously unable to contain her laughter in the face of my devilish charm, “Well, as you can see- we’re all out.”
Behind me, Sally cleared her throat.
“Why would that be, Mrs Barnes?”
“Oven’s broken,” Bertha stabbed a thumb towards the kitchen.
“Only we had a call earlier today asking us to look into a break in on this premises. Was something taken?”
“Really? Must have been a hoax. There’s been no break-in.”
“So you won’t mind if I take a look around, Miss?” I interject.
“Knock yourself out,” she shrugged, though her shoulders seemed stiff.
I sidestepped the visibly nervous woman and made my way into the back room. The ghosts of cookies past wafted into my nostrils. No one made them like Bertha Barnes and no one quite knew what the secret was either. Some said cinnamon or nutmeg, others the ground down bones of infants. Whatever it was, Bertha’s bakes were addictive. Something about them always bought you back for more. I must confess that my search of the kitchens was more for my own personal interest than in the aid of the unalleged burglary. There was nothing unusual about the array of ingredients lined up on the shelves, though I took note of the waft of hot air that hit me as I passed the whirring oven.
Something caught my eye and I dropped into a crouch to get a better look. I ran my finger along the bottom of the counter, in that groove where a brush couldn’t quite reach. My finger came away with a fine coating of white crystals. I licked my finger, feeling that old familiar buzz across my tongue. I noted the broom propped hastily not two feet away.
A smile crept across my face like continents across a tectonic plate. In this city, everyone had something to hide. You just had to know where to look.
“Is he ok?” a voice behind me hissed, “Why’s he frozen like that?”
“He’s monologuing,” Sally sighed, “Just be thankful he’s not doing it out loud.”
“Did he just lick the floor?”
“Doesn’t seem very hygienic.”
“It’s best to just leave him to it.”
“Will he be long? Only, I’ve got work to do...”
I straightened up, dusted off my hands.
“Lovely place you’ve got here, Miss.”
“Thanks. Built it from the ground up. It’s not an easy business to be in these days.”
“Hard to compete?”
“Yeah,” Sweetcheeks conceded, “The taxes nearly killed us.”
“The window is especially nice,” I added, “Looks almost new.”
I left the woman to sweat.
“What was that all about?” Sally asked.
“You trust her?”
“No. Clearly something happened last night. There’s glass all over the street. Maybe it was vandalism, maybe it was just high spirits, or maybe she really did get robbed. What I don’t understand is why this is a job for us and not the police?”
“An excellent question,” I said, taking a cigarette and rolling it between my fingers, “I think it’s time we spoke to our client, don’t you think?”
“So?” the narrow streak of a man who had answered the door asked, “Did you find out what’s going on down there?”
The apartment above the bakery contained none of the pleasant smells found below. They were probably scared off by the almost palpable wall of stench. The air seemed to be a mixture of wet socks, soured milk and body odour. Our client looked to be a man brought low, down on his luck. That was the only excuse for the sorry state of his haircut and creased shirt.
“Mrs Barnes says nothing happened,” Sally said, whilst I continued to survey the aftermath of whatever bomb went off in this apartment.
“But I heard the window smash,” he said, watery eyed, though so was I in that smog, “I saw the guy go in there!”
When pressed for more details, the man stuttered and faltered, failing to remember any distinguishable features of our nighttime assailant. I filed this under ‘deeply suspicious’.
“She says nothing was taken,” Sally explains, “Whatever happened, the window has been replaced. Whether it was a botched robbery or just petty vandalism, it looks like things have been resolved. If you’re worried about security, you should really ask your landlord about fitting a camera."
“But she’s my landlord,” the guy said, twitching.
Everything about the guy was twitchy. Why was this man seemingly so scared of a break-in? Whenever anyone tried something like that at the office, I always found that a swift punch to the jaw did the trick. And just what did he have here that was worth stealing? Nothing that I could see. To be honest, it looked as though his house had already been raided multiple times.
Maybe, I mused, it had.
Black clouds had rolled in whilst we were inside. They hung thick and heavy high above the city. Soon it would rain.
“The plot thickens,” I said, staring upwards as the sky sagged with the weight of its water.
“You’re calling this in, right?” started Sally, “It’s clearly a case of-”
“The plot,” I repeat, “Thickens.”
“Sure,” Sally sighed, “Look, are you getting paid for this?”
The bell jangled on its spring, moonlight glinting off its polished silver surface. A shadow moved across the bakery floor. My shadow.
Bertha stepped out of the kitchen, rolling pin raised high. When she saw that it was me, she relented, lowering the weapon. A femme fatale knows when she’s been caught.
“Mr Daversham? What are you doing here?”
“I’ve figured it all out, Sweetcheeks,” I told her.
“Your jealous spurned lover turned you in,” I gestured upwards, “He took back the gear and he threw you to the dogs.”
“Who?” she scrunched up her face in mock confusion.
Just because a femme fatale knows she’s been caught, doesn’t mean she’s going to make things any easier for her adversary.
“Don’t play innocent with me, Mrs Barnes. I notice you don’t wear a wedding ring.”
She opened the top button of her blouse, revealing a flash of silver.
“I’m a baker,” she said, “I wear it on a chain round my neck. I don’t want it in the dough. I’m a happily married woman, Mr Daversham.”
“Sure you are,” I scoffed, “And I’m sure it was just business to you. To him though? To him it was real, Bertha. You played a dangerous game with a dangerous man.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Tell me- what’s the secret ingredient?”
She seemed taken aback by this sudden change of tack. That was the way- keep them on their toes.
“Love,” she said, “I bake every one of my cookies with love.”
“Cut the crap,” I told her, “I’ve seen my fair share of white powders. I know the good stuff when I see it. The real stuff.”
Her lip quivered as she looked into my eyes and contemplated her deception. Like an egg, she was cracking under the pressure.
“That weren’t no xylitol now was it, Sweetcheeks? No neotame. You only use the hard stuff.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about-” she tried, but her eyes betrayed her.
“I know Splenda when I taste it, honey, and that ain’t it. So what’s the secret ingredient?”
“Caster sugar,” she blubbed at last, though perhaps her tears were her greatest deception of all, “It gives the cookies that crunch. It was the only way to keep the customers.”
“Caster sugar,” I repeated, shaking my head in disbelief.
“Promise,” she said, steeling herself once more, “Promise you won’t tell.”
I turned my back and went to walk away.
“I know you’ve got a sweet tooth, detective,” she says, her voice low and sultry, “What if I... sweeten the deal?”
What can I say? Every man has his vices.
“And in the end,” I said as we cruised down central boulevard, “It was all a case of-“
“Tax evasion,” said Sally, “Mrs Barnes doesn’t pay her sugar tax, so when someone robbed her sugar stash she couldn’t exactly call it in. The tenant was concerned about the unreported robbery next door, but decided he couldn’t risk being thrown out on the streets if he called the cops on his landlady so he called us to get to the bottom of things instead. You should really pass that info onto the fraud divisional, or, at the very least, the landlord’s association. Maybe they’ll reward you for it.”
“Love,” I finished, “It was all a case of love gone wrong. She wooed her way into a sucrose smuggling ring and she got herself burned. And that is the way the cookie crumbles.”
“You know, Uncle Richard... I could have gotten a real summer job, one that paid, instead of agreeing to babysit you.”
I pretended not to have heard and dug out the cardboard packet from my jacket pocket. The rough hiss as the stick dragged against its neighbour was music to my ears. I lifted the white cylinder to my lips, inhaled then bit down noisily. The crunch reverberated along my jaw and right through my skull. I would be picking candy out of my teeth for days afterwards.
“She bribed you? Christ...”
Like I said, Sally was young. Naive. She still had a lot to learn about the ways of the world. She still had a long way to fall.
But what was one bribe against the system we lived in? A system that taxed all that was sweet and good in the world and drove honest business women to a life of cartels and deceit? To turn a blind eye would be to allow a spark of joy back into this dark and twisted world...
“Uncle Richard,” Sally said with exasperation, “You’re doing it out loud again.”