Here are the first couple of chapters of a novel I wrote in 1994 - Herbert's First Case. If I get enough interest, I'll publish further chapters on the site. Let me know what you think
Chapter 1 - A New Start
The door to Bill Caxton's office held no terrors for Herbert today. He remembered the sweaty armpits and digestion problems he'd had to endure in the past almost as if they'd happened to somebody else. He'd had to face that door many times and agonise over how hard to knock, hope that he heard Bill Caxton say "Enter" the first time, and try to arrange his features into a confident expression. Looking confident when summoned to that office was not easy. In fact this would be Herbert's first time.
He opened the door without knocking and faced Bill Caxton with an easy smile. Caxton looked up almost in shock from his computer terminal. He had a furtive air as if he'd just been caught playing a computer game. He probably had been; nobody could remember the last time he had been caught working. His expression moved through three phases in quick succession: anxiety, relief, irritation.
"What do you want? I didn't hear you knock."
"I didn't knock, Bill."
Caxton's concession to his staff was to allow them to call him by his first name. This was to give the impression that he did not consider himself in any way superior. Of course it was a sham that fooled no-one, least of all Bill Caxton; he knew he was superior, but it was a sham that everybody had to go along with, at least while he was within earshot. Once he'd gone, his staff referred to him as Baldy. The top of Bill Caxton's head was famous for being the smoothest thing in the company, with the possible exception of the sales director.
"Can you remember telling us that if we needed to speak to you your door would always be open?" asked Herbert sweetly.
This was part of Caxton's opening spiel when he took over any new team. It gave him a warm feeling to tell his staff that he would always be there for them in any crisis. In fact, having achieved self gratification, he immediately forgot it. The only time Baldy Caxton's office door was open was when somebody was walking through it.
"What do you want? I'm a busy man."
"Of course you are," laughed Herbert, and handed Caxton his letter of resignation.
Old Baldy looked as if he couldn't believe his eyes as he read the letter. Herbert was aware that his loss to the company wouldn't be a major blow. Another programmer of his ability shouldn't be too hard to find, but losing him at this stage would make things difficult. The replacement would have to be trained and the Branch Exception Relative Performance System (BERPS) was at a vital stage in its development. Frankly, Herbert couldn't care less.
Herbert understood his manager's incredulity. The idea of willingly leaving the company was one which Baldy would never contemplate.
"Aren't you happy here, Herbert?" Good grief! First name terms.
"Do you feel you should have been given promotion instead of Jenkins?"
"But you get on well with the rest of the team don't you?"
"Have you been offered more money somewhere else?"
"Who are you going to work for?"
"You're going contracting then."
"But you are staying in the business."
"But what are you going to do?"
Herbert had been looking forward to this line.
"I'm going to be a private detective."
Old Baldy looked temporarily stunned, then slightly unsure of himself; then he became more aggressive
"Is this some sort of joke, Fusion because if it is I think ..."
"It's no joke, Baldy. When I've got some cards printed I'll give you one. You never know, you might need me one day."
He turned on his heel and walked out of the office wearing a huge grin. Actually calling Bill Caxton "Baldy" had given Herbert almost as much pleasure as the thought of never having to work there again - almost.
Four weeks and three days later, Herbert was ensconced in an office of his own. The contrast with the one he'd left was stark, and only added to his pleasure in it. The walls were bare of charts and charters. A tired green carpet tried to cover even more ancient brown lino. Pale threadbare patches and paths bore witness to previous incarnations when life had been busier and furniture more plentiful: a desk and two chairs were the only items to disturb its surface. The battered desk was made from chipboard and contained three drawers to its occupant's left hand, by which token the amateur detective might deduce that Herbert was left-handed. Unfortunately for both parties, this was not in fact the case, and it was rather a sign of Herbert's bad fortune to be the proud owner of the only left-handed desk built by Arnold Flowers & Co Ltd in the whole of Derbyshire. The chair in which Herbert was presently luxuriating could swivel through three hundred and sixty degrees and at one time had possessed the means to have its elevation adjusted to the inclination of its occupant. Unhappily, during its long years of use, it had lost this particular capacity and was now stuck at its lowest position so that Herbert's head was about twelve inches lower than he would have liked. He consoled himself that had it stuck in its highest position, he would have been unable to get his knees under the desk. The other one, for clients, was a difficult chair acquired from his mother. It had, at one time, been an easy chair but had lost its title as springs had succumbed to the ravages of time. Since he wasn't going to be sitting in it, Herbert felt he could live with the discomfort.
If his office was shoddy enough for a Hollywood private detective's, Herbert was honest enough to admit that he was no Humphrey Bogart. A number of young ladies had been honest enough to inform him of his plain appearance in the past, but whereas this had caused him considerable anguish before, in his new career it would be an asset; now it would help him to blend into the background.
He looked at his watch. Quarter past nine.
For the umpteenth time since deciding on his new career, he played out the scene with his first client. Cool and beautiful, she walked silkily into his office, her long red hair shimmering in the half light of his dingy office, her long legs revealed by the slit running down the length of her expensive tailored dress. She tried to look unconcerned as she explained her problem, only her deep green eyes reflecting her anxiety. But as she fell under Herbert's spell, the barriers came falling down and she laid a trembling hand on his arm.
"Oh, Mr Fusion, I'm desperate. Please help me. I'll be so grateful"
"Don't worry, baby. Leave it with me. I'll be in touch".
Herbert knew that private detectives held an irresistable appeal for attractive women. Was there a film where Philip Marlowe didn't have a beautiful girl chasing him? Herbert couldn't think of one. And what women found so appealing, other men found admirable. Even the master criminals he was pitted against would have a grudging respect for him. He'd probably gain a friend in the police force; a junior detective, young but perceptive who would protect Herbert from the inevitable jealous senior policeman. There would be late nights spent in smoky bars, jazz pianists playing moody tunes, sultry blonde singers with secrets they'd do anything to keep. Only the underlying violence marred the picture. When he'd been a computer programmer, backstabbers had been people who would inform your superiors of transgressions or weaknesses. In his new profession, backstabbers was a literal term. Still he'd rather worry about that than about the effect of including middle management grades in BERPS.
He left his chair and sauntered the three and a half feet to his window. The view was uncluttered by vertical blinds. It was sunny out there. He thought he'd let some fresh air in but the window seemed to be stuck. He examined the frame and noticed the paint where the gap should be. So nobody's opened this window since it was painted he deduced. He wondered how long ago that was. It set Herbert's mind working on the rate at which paints dried and whether some paints were slower than others. This was the sort of thing Sherlock Holmes would know. He wondered if the library had books on the chemical reactions of paints exposed to the atmosphere, and then realised that he didn't know when the library was open. Sherlock would probably have known that as well.
He looked out over West Bars.
Beneath him was a large roundabout whose centre had been grassed and treed and flowered. The flora was struggling to survive the bombardment of traffic fumes which completely surrounded it so that no matter which way the wind was blowing, it would be certain of getting its daily dosage. The road to his left took the traffic on its tortuous circuit of the town centre whilst to the right it carried its paying customers to the glories of the Peak District and such tourist Meccas as the ancestral home of the Duke of Devonshire. It irritated Herbert that the Duke of Devonshire lived in Derbyshire. Why the hell didn't he live in Devon? On the opposite side of the roundabout a huge red DIY superstore glowered at him. Its equally huge car park was full of signs indicating that only patrons were allowed to use it. Those people who pay others to DI for them but still use the car park would have to pay for the privelege, they said. Not that it made any difference. The store was sufficiently close to town for drivers to park their vehicles there and risk the embarrassment of being seen walking surreptitiously straight into town.
Given the volume of traffic outside at the moment, Herbert considered it sensible to leave the window closed. It might get a bit stuffy in his office but it would be much noisier if he managed to open the window. He couldn't afford to have background noise affecting his thought processes.
The sound of footsteps on the corridor outside reached his ears. A client. Visions of the long legged redhead flashed before his eyes.
He left the window and jumped back into his chair. Look professional he thought. What the hell does that mean? Be looking at some files. The steps came nearer. Herbert didn't have any files. What's in the drawers? He tried to open the top drawer - it was stuck. He tried the second one - same result. He yanked desperately on the bottom drawer but it wouldn't budge. Bloody hell! He fervently wished he was left handed. He got out of his chair, crouched down, yanked as hard as he could with both hands but to no avail. The footsteps continued past his door and down the corridor. He heard the next door but one open and close.
Herbert sat on the floor for a breather, saw the key under the desk and unlocked the drawers. They opened smoothly when he tried them again but contained nothing other than one screw, two paper clips and the top off a biro. On reflection it was probably a good thing it hadn't been a client. He climbed back into his chair and looked at his watch. Eighteen minutes past nine.
Perhaps it would be a good idea if he went to the stationers and bought some files or something. He was going to need them anyway. And while he was out, he could pop along to the library and see what useful books they had. At least he'd discover the opening times. And if anyone phoned, there was the answering machine. It was probably better if prospective clients got the answering machine, they'd think he was on a case - and a busy detective must be a good detective.
The library was in the centre of town and a good half mile from Herbert's premises. It was already warm enough for Herbert to walk there wearing nothing over his shirt. The dark glasses he wore as he walked into town owed nothing to his occupation or sense of fashion, but were rather an essential item for the the day's glare.
Herbert was unused to being in the town centre on a work day. As he crossed the marketplace he marvelled at the number of people in town. Young mothers struggling to push their children's buggies over the cobblestones and battling to get them through shop doors which open outward or have a step to negotiate. Young children in buggies trying to stop their teeth from rattling. Older children checking each other for the latest fashions - why weren't they in school? And why were there so many men around? Was there so much unemployment in town or were these people on holiday?
He reached the library before he reached a conclusion. It was open after all.
As he walked through the entrance an alarm went off. Herbert stood still for a moment while his natural pallor reddened. He walked over to the desk to explain himself but noticed that an elderly man was already helping the clerk with her enquiries and searching through his bag for something that might have caused the trouble. Herbert was about to walk in when a woman behind the desk addressed him.
Herbert was dumbstruck. He considered his options. He could walk away and pretend not to have noticed the assistant. That would be both rude and embarrassing: they were looking right at each other. He could admit that he didn't want anything. That would be even more embarrassing.
"How can I help you?" the librarian persevered. She obviously thought she was dealing with a dimwit. Herbert had a brainwave.
"I'd like to join the library, please."
"I see. Have you got any identification with you?"
"Certainly," Herbert answered with a smile. He extracted a business card from his shirt pocket with a fluid movement of two fingers, then he picked it off the floor and presented it to the librarian.
"Yes madam," he thought as he watched her eyebrows lift in surprise, "I am a real private detective."
"No," she said flatly, "I mean something with your home address on. Have you got a driving licence?"
Herbert was crestfallen. Not only was she uninterested in his profession, but her expression suggested she thought it unlikely he was capable of driving a car. He retrieved his unwanted business card and handed her his driving licence.
"Oh. Thank you. Now if you'd just fill out these forms..."
Ten minutes and three forms later he was a member.
There were three floors, several librarians, and thousands of books in the library, but he couldn't find any on paint drying. He would have been compensated if he had found a book entitled The Secrets Of Private Detection but he didn't. So he left with nothing more than a new membership card.
Since the library was in the shopping arcade, he bought a couple of pens, some paper and some cardboard folders from the stationers while he was there. Then he called in for a cup of tea and a cheese and onion toasty from the cafe near the bus stop on Elder Way. Before he went back to the office, he phoned just to check his answering machine was working all right.
"Hello. This is Herbert Fusion, Private Detective. I'm sorry I can't take your call at the moment, but if you leave your name and telephone number and some case details, I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Please speak after the tone.." Herbert was pleased that although the Herbert Fusion on the answerphone didn't sound like the Herbert he knew, the voice in his ear was definitely the voice of a private detective. He decided to give Herbert Fusion, Private Detective something to listen to.
"Hello, Herbert, it's Philip Marlowe. I need your help on a case. Give me a call". There was nobody waiting outside the door and no letters on the floor when he got in. The indicator light was shining on the answering machine but it was only Philip Marlowe and he didn't even leave a phone number. There was one other very useful item Herbert had bought from the stationers. He turned the first page of Farewell My Lovely and began to read how Marlowe did it.
Chapter 2 - The First Client
After two days. Herbert had become accustomed to the footsteps marching past his door, so when some stopped outside it, and a knuckle rapped on it, it came as a complete surprise. He took his feet off his left handed desk, clapped shut Farewell My Lovely and shoved it in the top drawer. Then he quietly cleared his throat before saying "Come in" in the firm but sympathetic voice he'd been practising.
It was a short, smartly dressed man in his mid to late fifties. He crept apologetically into the office and looked at Herbert. They stared blankly at each other for a few seconds before Herbert took the initiative.
"Won't you sit down?" Herbert indicated the not-so-easy chair to the newcomer.
"Thank you," the man responded before accepting Herbert's hospitality.
"What can I do for you?" Herbert offered.
"Are you Roger Middleton, suspended ceiling specialist?"
Herbert found this a rather strange question.
"No, I'm Herbert Fusion, private detective."
The man paused for a moment. Herbert waited for him to say something else.
"Well, can I speak to him please?"
"There is no Roger Middleton here. I've just told you I'm a private detective."
"Do you know anything about suspended ceiling installations?"
Herbert had a brainwave.
"Would you like me to find Roger Middleton for you?"
"Oh, could you?" Herbert put his detective skills to work. Within three minutes he had found the elusive Mr Middleton's address. It was on the other side of town. The man was very grateful. Herbert had been going to charge him for the information but he couldn't bring himself to do it: the man had enough problems without being charged for looking in Yellow Pages.
Three days later, herbert's phone rang.
"Herbert Fusion, private investigations."
"Herbert? Is that you?"
Things were going too far when his own mother started doubting Herbert's identity.
"Of course it's me, mother. I've just said so haven't I?"
"All right, Herbert. There's no need to bite my head off. You weren't so snappy when you wanted my easy chair were you?"
Herbert took a deep breath and tried not to be irritated. It wasn't his mum's fault that nobody had hired him yet.
"I'm sorry, but this is my business phone, mother. You should phone me at home. There could be clients trying to get through."
"But it's about your work."
"How are you getting on in your new job? Are you making much money?"
Herbert couldn't argue with such logic. He told her he was doing fine and silently hoped she wouldn't stay on the line too long. Perhaps Mrs Fusion noticed Herbert's taciturnity because after only five minutes she ended the conversation with her usual question. Herbert told her he'd be coming to see her before the end of the week.
The phone didn't ring again.
Herbert couldn't dismiss the thought that his first client had chosen the five minutes his mother was on the phone to ring him. He went home in a bad mood.
It was two weeks after moving into his office that Herbert received his first professional visit.
He'd finished the Chandler story without guessing the ending and, rather than buy another book (the option of borrowing one from the library hadn't occurred to him) he'd brought in his portable television from home to watch the test match. England were in trouble at the moment. Another fifty seven needed to avoid the follow on with three wickets standing. He didn't regret packing in his computer job but he was beginning to worry about whether he'd made a mistake in becoming a private detective. Herbert groaned as another England wicket fell. He ignored the now familiar footsteps down the corridor until they stopped outside his door. There was a small knock at the door, a woman's knock? Then his first client walked into the office.
It was a woman, but definitely not the slim, leggy young redhead he had visualised.
Herbert guessed her age at middle fifties and her weight (in stones) at mid teens. She was wearing a purple dress that looked home-made, red high-heeled shoes, bright purple lipstick and was clutching a large red handbag. Her eyelashes were long enough to be used for gathering leaves. Her hair was medium length and stood out from her head rather than falling naturally. Herbert noticed that there was about half an inch of greyer coloured hair near her roots and deduced that she'd had it dyed about four weeks ago. He might not know about the deterioration of materials but he congratulated himself in remembering his schoolboy biology on the rate of hair growth in human beings. When she spoke it was with a local accent punctuated by an occasional BBC word as though she now moved in higher circles than had at one time been the case.
"Mr Fusion? I'm so pleased to meet you. I do so hope you can help me"
She held out her hand in greeting rather like royalty awaiting an oath of fealty. Not knowing what else to do, Herbert took the proffered hand to his lips.
"I hope so too, madam. Please sit down." He indicated the not-so-easy chair.
There was a twanging of springs as the woman sat down. She looked temporarily uncomfortable as she shuffled around in the chair before she found an acceptable position. A look of perplexity crossed her face when she noticed that her head was even lower than Herbert's. They stared at one another over the desk like two children over a sweet counter, then the smile returned to her face.
"You like cricket then, Mr Fusion".
Herbert hastily switched off the television, but not before the woman had heard the antipodean drawl of the commentator describing the fall of England's eighth wicket.
"Er yes. That is I do like cricket but I wasn't actually watching it. I use teletext to keep up with the latest news developments and business information."
Herbert was quite pleased with himself; he hadn't realised that he could lie quite so smoothly. It briefly crossed his mind that if he didn't make it as a private detective, he might consider a career in sales.
"How can I help you, Mrs.."
"Trump," replied the woman "Elsie Trump."
Herbert's mouth twitched very slightly, but she seemed not to notice.
"How can I help you, Mrs Trump?"
"It's my daughter, Mr Fusion. She's getting worried about her husband."
Mrs Trump appeared to need some encouragement before she would continue.
"Do you mean he's in some sort of trouble?" Herbert obliged.
"Not exactly." Mrs Trump looked directly into Herbert's eyes. "She thinks he's been seeing another woman."
Herbert was going to say something like "What makes her think that" but he was a little flustered by Mrs Trump's gaze; she seemed to be telling him something with her eyes that he couldn't quite understand. This time, however, she continued without him having to prompt her.
"She's noticed over the past couple of months that Jeremy's been going out a lot. Well, definitely more than he used to when they first got married. I mean, they've not been married long." She paused to calculate "Two years and three months. He used to pay her a lot of attention. You know, he'd take her out for a meal every now and again, or he'd buy her a box of chocolates just for the sake of it, but he doesn't do that any more."
Herbert wasn't surprised. If she took after her mother, two years and three months of eating chocolates and slap-up dinners would not have a favourable effect on her figure. He noticed that as she settled down to her narrative, the poshness disappeared from Elsie's speech altogether and he was left with the real Elsie Trump - before she tried to become something else. He might have felt a bit more relaxed himself if it wasn't for the way she was looking at him. She was still talking.
"They've bin tryin' for children you know but nothing's happened yet. I don't think it's Jeremy's fault." Elsie's eyes lost something of their intensity for a moment and she seemed to look right through Herbert, "I'm sure he's got nothing wrong with him. He's in the prime of life."
Her eyes came sharply back to focus on Herbert and he was suddenly aware of why he was feeling uncomfortable. She appeared to be waiting for him to say something but he wasn't sure what he should ask. Should he be writing any of this down? "Shouldn't you be making notes or something Herbert?"
The sudden use of his christian name did not go unnoticed. Elsie crossed her legs, which was no mean feat for someone sitting in that chair, but the effort cost her some discomfort. There was a sudden explosive, anti-social sound from the region of the seat cushion which seemed to echo round the springs like a ballbearing in a pinball machine.
"Oh. I thought I heard somethin' outside."
The attempted BBC accent had returned to Elsie's speech.
Herbert had no time to speculate on the mischief played by circumstance in allowing this woman to marry a man called Trump. She was his first customer and had to be accorded every courtesy.
"I didn't hear anything Mrs erm.. I'll take down specific details later, names, addresses, that sort of thing but I like to get an overall feel of things before I start to write things down. Please continue now you've far.. started."
Herbert fervently wished that the window wasn't painted shut. At the moment he would have happily endured the noise from the street. He wondered if Elsie had been on the beer last night. Before he realised what he was doing he had written "Guinness?" on his notepad. Fortunately, from her relatively lowly position, Elsie couldn't see what he was writing. He quickly scribbled it out.
"Anyway," she continued in her normal manner once more "I happen to know, Jeremy would love to have children and it looks like Laura might not be able to have any."
"Has she had any tests or anything?"
"Oh no, nothing like that, but Jeremy is an attractive man, Mr Fusion, with normal urges, after two years you'd've expected something. It didn't take me five minutes to get pregnant."
Elsie said this with some bitterness as though she had been forced to make the decision to stay with one man before she had finished seeing what all the others had to offer. Herbert couldn't help but notice that she seemed rather fonder of her son-in-law than she did of her daughter. Every time she spoke about Jeremy her eyes took on a faraway glaze. Herbert considered it all too likely that poor old Jeremy had run away from his mother-in-law more often than his wife. He wondered about Elsie's husband.
"Have you spoken to your husband about this, Mrs Trump?"
"I'm a widow, Herbert. My husband died eighteen months ago."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"That's all right," she sniffed, "I'm over it now."
Herbert could see that for himself. No Herbert, me and Laura's talked about it but I've not talked to anybody else; except you". Herbert thought that the time had come to talk business. For one thing she seemed to be getting altogether too forward, for another the atmosphere in the room was such that he wanted to conclude the interview as quickly as possible (he found it difficult to understand how Elsie could look so unconcerned) but most importantly, he needed some income.
"Mrs Trump," he said decisively, "This case interests me. I've decided to take it - assuming you still want me to".
He'd been wondering if the middle-aged, flatulant nymphomaniac in front of him would be able to afford his fees. His last remark brought the desired response.
"How much are your fees, Mr Fusion?". Back to the BBC voice.
Herbert had calculated that he should ask for a daily rate that would pay him two and a half times what his old salary was. It came to a frighteningly high amount of money. He told her his rate and took enormous pleasure in saying "Plus expenses".
Elsie didn't flinch.
"That seems very reasonable, Mr Fusion. I take it you would like some expenses in advance"
She took it absolutely right and Herbert sat with a bemused smile on his face as she extricated herself from the chair long enough to write a cheque which was twice as much as Herbert thought he would need.
"Now for some details, Mrs Trump."
When Elsie had gone, the details Herbert had on his notepad were that Elsie's deceased husband was called Arthur. He had been a milkman for the Co-op and had won a substantial amount of money from the football pools shortly before his death. This accounted for Elsie's address in one of the best parts of town. He was pleased with his earlier assessment that she had recently changed her social circle for the better. Her son-in-law, Jeremy Biddle and her daughter Laura, lived on the new estate in Walton. Jeremy worked in an accounts department for the Post Office. Herbert had their address and a recently taken photograph of the pair of them. It was close enough to show only the top third of their bodies, but enough to show that another of Herbert's conjectures had proved correct. Laura was beginning to look as though she had eaten too many chocolates. Laura was unaware that her mother had hired a private detective. This bothered Herbert at first; the fact that it was Jeremy Biding's mother-in-law rather than his wife who was taking such an interest in him seemed somehow rather grubby. Still, he was hardly in a position to be able to turn down work on a moral standpoint; perhaps in a couple of months. He had however, asked why Elsie was keeping her daughter in the dark.
"Laura worries that I spend too much money." she had replied, "She doesn't know just how much my husband won before he died. He didn't want any publicity in case we got any begging letters. I didn't realise how much we'd won either till I saw our bank statement after the money had gone in. Anyway she would think that you were an unnecessary expense, Mr Fusion, and she might even tell Jeremy about it. Then we'd never find out what he was up to."
So that was that. As he fingered the loaded cheque in front of him, Herbert had a warm glow on the inside and a broad smile on the outside. He looked round his beautiful spartan office and thought of Baldy Caxton and Branch Exception Relative Performance Reports, of high flyers and backstabbers, boring meetings and stressful interviews. His smile grew broader. He kissed his cheque, took up his notepad, and consulted his watch. Twelve fifty seven. His cheque would be in the bank by one fifteen. That would give him three and threequarter hours before Jeremy Biding left work; plenty of time to consider his first case and develop a strategy. And why do that in his office when a hundred yards down the road was the Square and Compass?