Wednesday, November 23, 2011

JULIUS KATZ AND ARCHIE -- First Chapter



“What do I want from you? Simple. Find out who’s planning to kill me.”

These words were spoken by one Kenneth J. Kingston as he sat across from Julius, his voice having a thick nasal quality that bordered on whining. Kingston’s legs were crossed, his manner seemingly casual and unconcerned, his mouth compressed into a curious smile that seemed at odds with what he had just told Julius.

Kingston was a well-known Boston-area crime writer. I’d say he was a bestselling writer, but he wasn’t, at least not with his last several books. He was forty-nine and physically almost the exact opposite of his fictional private eye, and he certainly had no resemblance to tough guy crime writers like Mickey Spillane or Robert B. Parker. Dressed in an Armani suit and wearing expensive Italian loafers, he was five feet eight inches tall, and thin with a slight build. I had seen his publicity photos, so I thought I knew what to expect, but those must’ve been carefully posed because in real-life he didn’t resemble them very much. From his demeanor you could tell that he believed himself to be good-looking, but he wasn’t. Even if his tight curly hair hadn’t begun receding up his forehead, he wouldn’t have been. Not with his thin nose being as pointy as it was, and not with his chin being even pointier, and certainly not with that mouth of his being too big and wide for his angular face when it wasn’t compressed into a curious smile. If I had olfactory senses, I would have been able to describe the cologne he was wearing, but since I don’t, I could only guess it was some sort of dense musk. Of course it was possible he wasn’t wearing any cologne, but he seemed like the type that would.

Kingston wasn’t the first person to ever sit in Julius’s office and speak those words, or at least words to that effect, but those other prospective clients appeared anxious and worried as they did so. I found Kingston’s smile and his overall behavior confusing, maybe even disconcerting. If it confused Julius, I couldn’t tell. Julius didn’t respond to Kingston’s bombshell. Instead, he sat expressionless, although the fingers of his right hand began drumming lightly on the top of his antique walnut desk, which indicated an annoyance on his part.

After Kingston had called Julius for an appointment, I built a profile on him, hacking into whatever databases I could find that referenced him, financial or otherwise. I discovered a number of things, including his past tax returns and his current net worth. While he had a hundred and twenty-three thousand dollars in savings and investments, he was not the millionaire you’d expect a well-known author to be, but I guess that wasn’t so surprising since, as I’d already mentioned, he was no longer a bestselling one. Four books ago he was, but since then his sales have been trending downwards. His last book sold a little over thirteen thousand copies, which was an unmitigated disaster given that his publisher printed a hundred thousand. As part of the profile, I also analyzed all of his books—both the early ones he had written with his writing partner and the ones he later wrote by himself. I didn’t get much from this analysis other than general indications that Kingston thought very highly of himself, and that the books were poorly written, at least the ones he wrote by himself, which most likely accounted for the downward trend in sales. I now went back to his profile hoping to discover a clue as to why Kingston would be smiling in such an unusual fashion for someone who believed his life to be in danger.

You’re probably confused at this point as to what’s going on. Let me explain. While Kingston probably believed there were only two sentient beings at that moment in Julius’s office, himself and Julius, there were actually three; although I was the only one not of a biological nature even though I acted as Julius’s accountant, personal secretary, unofficial biographer and all-around assistant. What I am is a two-inch rectangular-shaped piece of space-aged computer technology that’s twenty-years more advanced than what’s currently considered theoretically possible—at least aside from whatever lab created me. How Julius acquired me, I have no clue. Whenever I’ve tried asking him, he jokes around, telling me he won me in a poker game. It could be true—I wouldn’t know since I have no memory of my time before Julius.

So that’s what I am, a two-inch rectangular mechanism weighing one point two ounces. What’s packed inside my titanium shell includes visual and audio receptors as well as wireless communication components and a highly sophisticated neuron network that not only simulates intelligence, but learning and thinking which adapts in response to my experiences. Auditory and visual recognition are included in my packaging, which means I can both see and hear, although as I’ve already mentioned, olfactory senses were left out. I can also speak. When Julius and I are in public, or when he is with a client as he was now, I speak to him through the wireless receiver that he wears in his ear as if it were a hearing aid. When we’re alone in his office he usually plugs the unit into a speaker on his desk.

Julius calls me “Archie”, and I’ve grown to think of myself as Archie, just as I’ve grown to imagine myself as a five-foot tall heavyset man with thinning hair, but of course I’m not five-foot tall, nor do I have the bulk that I imagine myself having, and I certainly don’t have any hair, thinning or otherwise. I also don’t have a name, only a serial identification number. But for whatever reason Julius calling me Archie seems right; and besides, it’s quicker to say than the eighty-four digit serial identification number that has been burnt into me.

The reason I have an image of myself being five-foot tall is easy to explain. Julius wears me as a tie clip, which puts me at roughly a five-foot distance from the ground when he stands. At one point when Julius realized the effect he was having on my self-image, he tried wearing me on a hatband, but I found this new height disorienting, as if I were walking around on stilts, and Julius likewise found it uncomfortable wearing a hat, so we mutually agreed I’d go back to being worn as a tie clip. I’ve never quite figured out where my self-image of thinning hair and heavyset build came from, but guess they were physical characteristics I picked up from Dashiell Hammett’s fictional PI, the Continental Op; which could be explained by Julius patterning my personality and speech on the works of some of the most important private eye novels of the twentieth century, including Hammett’s Continental Op novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. Or maybe for some reason I identified with Costanza from Seinfeld—one of the few television programs Julius indulges in.

I was searching through a database of photos from classic Hollywood scenes when I found one that showed the same smile that Kingston was now wearing. The photo was taken from “The Third Man” and it showed Orson Welles the moment a passing light catches his face while he’s hiding in the shadows. The same smile. A smile of amusement. It didn’t add up. Why would Kingston be so amused over the fact that he had an unknown assailant planning to kill him? I was going to ask Julius about this, but decided to hold off. From the way he was tapping on his desk, I knew the slightest nudge—intentional or otherwise—would have him demand that Kingston leave his office immediately.

The newspapers and TV had Julius as Boston’s most brilliant and eccentric private investigator. They were right about the brilliant part, but as far as the eccentric part, maybe they were right, I don’t know, but I’d call it more laziness than anything else. Julius’s true passions were fine food, finer wine and gambling, and until he met Lily Rosten, womanizing. He hated to forego his true passions for the drudgery of work and only did so when it was absolutely necessary; in other words, when his funds were dwindling and he needed money so he could continue collecting wine for his cellar, indulging at Boston’s most exclusive gourmet restaurants and wagering a good deal of money in either high stake poker games or on the horses. And even then it would take days of unrelenting nagging on my part before I’d be able to get Julius to budge. So Julius was never in a good mood when he took cases, and now he was in a worse mood than usual with Lily gone on a business trip and his recent steep and puzzling losses in poker. When he started drumming his fingers harder on his desk, I knew he was seconds away from dismissing Kingston.

“There’s that case of Chateau Margaux 1995 waiting for you at the Wine Cellar,” I reminded him.

His drumming slowed down. Julius had been looking for that vintage for several years, and it went for four hundred dollars a bottle. He would have to choose between suffering Kingston’s intolerable smugness or losing that wine, and I was betting on the former, which served my purposes. I took satisfaction from helping Julius, but I also had my own agenda. I wanted to solve a case before him. You see, I long ago figured out the name he gave me, Archie. It came from the fictional private eye, Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe’s second banana who was always one step behind his boss. So yeah, I got the joke, but one of these days I was going to surprise Julius. It was only a matter of seeing enough cases and analyzing the decisions Julius makes to allow me to readjust my neuron network appropriately. One of these days he was going to have to start calling me Nero.

Julius made his decision and stopped his drumming completely. “Sir, if this is some kind of joke,” he started.

Kingston’s eyes opened wide in a mock display of surprise. “Oh, this is no joke,” he claimed. And then he giggled. I didn’t think writers who wrote tough guy crime fiction were supposed to giggle, but that was the only way to describe the sound he made.

I could almost feel Julius sink back in his chair, resigned to the fact that he wanted that case of wine more than he wanted to be free of this man. While the newspapers may be right about Julius’s eccentricity, they were completely wrong about his being particular about which cases he took. That was a myth. While Julius tries to avoid the more unseemly cases, especially those involving domestic issues, his primary concern was the fee that the cases would pay. It took a good deal of money to support Julius’s lifestyle, more now than ever with Lily in his life, and before booking the appointment with Kingston I arranged for a minimum fee of ten thousand dollars, which was money Julius now needed. Right now he had enough to stake him for his weekly poker game, but not enough for his next month’s expenses or other luxury items, 1995 Chateau Margaux included.

“You say this is not a joke, yet you act like it is,” Julius said with a sigh.

“I assure you it isn’t,” Kingston said, his tone more serious, but still with a smirk on his lips. “As I told your assistant, I’m willing to pay you ten thousand dollars for what should be no more than a few hours of your time.”

Julius grunted. “Either you overestimate my abilities or you don’t need my services, not if you believe you only need a few hours of my labor,” he said.

Kingston’s eyes dulled. He was beginning to get bored with whatever game he was playing. “No on both counts,” he said. “I’ll pay you the ten thousand dollars up front, and I won’t need more than four hours of your time. You can bill me whatever outlandish fee you’d like if it takes more than that.”

Julius nodded slightly, his features marble hard. “Go ahead, explain to me why you think someone is trying to kill you.”

Kingston tried smiling again. Not his amused smile from before but more of a forced one. “How much do you know about book publishing, Katz?” Kingston asked. Julius showed remarkable restraint by simply shrugging and not asking what this had to do with someone plotting to end his life, as I badly wanted to do. Kingston’s lips tightened as he shook his head. “It’s a brutal business,” he continued. “It’s always been brutal, but now more than ever before. It’s the whole blockbuster mentality as publishers fight for limited space in the retail stores. Did you know that sixty percent of all books sold in this country are sold through retail stores, even though they’re only selling books as loss leaders? They’re the ones who are dictating what’s being published these days, and the quality of the book be damned. It no longer matters. It’s all about other factors now.”

Again Julius showed remarkable restraint, maintaining a placid expression and not commenting on the quality of Kingston’s own writing. Upon booking Kingston’s appointment, I emailed Julius an excerpt from one of Kingston’s recent books, and while reading it Julius made a face as if he had sipped a good cabernet that had turned vinegar. He could only read two and a half pages of it before putting it away, claiming that the writing would ruin his appetite for dinner.

Kingston stopped to rub an index finger over his lips, his eyes growing distant. Then his lips tightened into a thin smile and his eyes shifted to catch Julius’s. They were pale, unpleasant eyes.

“My last book didn’t sell as well as it should have,” he conceded. “My next book is good, very different from my others, but good nonetheless. If it isn’t a bestseller, my career is over. We’re taking steps to make sure that happens. Usually books are sent out to reviewers and other writers months ahead of their publishing date for reviews and blurbs, but we’re keeping my next one under wraps until the day it’s released in three weeks. Reviewers, advance readers, nobody is seeing it until then. We’re not even telling anyone the title. It’s one of the ways we’ll be creating an excitement for the book.”

Kingston reached inside his suit jacket and pulled from a pocket a folded sheet of paper which he handed to Julius. Julius unfolded this paper and glanced at it for a moment before placing it on his desk. There were six names on the paper. I recognized five of them from the profile I had built on Kingston. The sixth name I recognized because he was also a Boston private investigator. I told Julius who the first five people on the list were. I didn’t bother telling him about his fellow private investigator since he knew about him as well as I did.

I was confused by all this, but from the way Julius’s eyes narrowed as he stared at his prospective client, I doubted that he was. “And what exactly am I supposed to do with this list?” he asked coldly.

“What do you think?” Kingston said. “That’s the list of potential suspects. I want you to interrogate them. And don’t worry, they all probably want to kill me, all except maybe my wife, although maybe she does too. You should have fun trying to figure out which one of them wants to kill me the most.”

“This is only a publicity stunt,” Julius stated.

“Bingo! That’s why you’re the world class genius detective. So all I want from you is to spend an hour, two hours at the most, interrogating them as a group. Make it look real. They’ll all think it is. I’ll have a TV crew present. Then in two weeks, after the buzz and media attention has been building, bring everyone back for another round of questioning. This time when you’re done act as if you’re stumped and I’ll jump in and name the guilty party. It will be a brilliant piece of publicity that will get the public hot for my book.”

Julius sat completely still with his lips pressed tightly together. I felt as if my processing cycles had ground to a halt—a sensation that I knew was akin to holding my breath with anticipation. Under normal circumstances I knew Julius would tell this man to leave his home, but now I wasn’t so sure. He needed the money. His recent poker losses were not only unexpected but steep—over thirty thousand dollars. Usually Julius had clients lining up to hire him since he’s Boston’s most famous private eye, but when he finally consented a few days ago to take a case this time the pickings were slim, at least among well-heeled prospective clients. There was the Bolovar securities fraud case. They wanted to hire Julius a month ago, and they still wanted to hire him, but that case would require extensive traveling which was something Julius hated. So given all that, I understood the temptation for Julius to take this farce of a case and the ten thousand dollar fee that it offered for no actual work, which I knew also appealed to his innate laziness. If he accepted what Kingston was offering, it would be at least another month before he would take a genuine case, which would be at least another month before I’d have the opportunity to refine my neuron network. My processing cycles felt as if they had slowed down even more, and I realized this new sensation was dejection.

“Sir, I decline your offer,” Julius told Kingston.

My processing cycles nearly hummed as they raced along again. Kingston looked dumbfounded.

“What do you mean you’re declining my offer?” he snapped, his voice even more of a nasal whine than before. “Ten thousand dollars for no more than four hours work? Are you nuts?”

“If you wish to hire a trained seal for your amusement, I suggest you go to the aquarium. I’m sure it will cost you far less than ten thousand dollars. We’re done here.”

Kingston gave Julius a hard stare. “Twenty thousand dollars,” he said.

“I’m not interested.”

“Twenty-five thousand.”

There was a hesitation before Julius shook his head. “It is bad enough,” he said, “that at times I must sell my services to afford the necessities of life, but I have no intention of selling my dignity for any amount. I’m not interested in this charade, and you’ve wasted enough of my time. I must ask you now to leave my office and home.”

Kingston looked like he wanted to argue, but instead nodded and stood up, a thin sneer etching his face. “I’m not done with you yet, Katz. You’ll see.” He left the office then while Julius stayed seated, brooding.

I followed Kingston on several of the webcam feeds that had been set up through the house to make sure he wasn’t up to any mischief and watched him as he left without incident. Once the front door closed, I asked Julius about 1995 Chateau Margaux being a necessity of life. “And Le Che Cru and all the other fine dining establishments that you frequent. These are necessities?”

“For me, Archie, they are.” Julius let out a soft sigh. “I suppose you’re going to be pestering me about turning down an easy twenty-five thousand dollars,” he said.

“No, sir,” I said. “I have to believe that your reputation is worth far more than that sum of money, and it would’ve been unbearable having to watch you play the dupe to someone like him.”

Another sigh escaped from Julius. “It’s good that you understand that, Archie,” he said. “It shows you’re progressing nicely.”

“There’s still the matter of your finances, or lack of such. I know you have your poker game in four days, but we can’t count on any poker winnings from you after your last two disastrous outings. I also know you don’t like the amount of traveling you’d have to do to Los Angeles and Atlanta, but Bolovar still wishes to hire you, very much so, in fact, and their fee would be substantial.”

“Please, Archie, my last twenty-five minutes were unpleasant enough.”

I shut up after that. It would’ve been pointless to continue. Besides, it was almost three-thirty and Julius had been planning to go to the Belvedere Club for their cognac sampling, so he’d be leaving soon. For several minutes Julius sat listlessly, his gaze resting on the book Kingston had brought for him—his previous effort that had disappointed his publisher with sales of only thirteen thousand copies. Kingston had signed it, writing inside: ‘the best book you’ll read this year, at least until you read my next.’ I expected Julius to toss it in the garbage, but instead he let it sit on his desk. When he finally pushed his chair back and got to his feet, instead of heading outside so he could walk the three blocks from his Beacon Hill townhouse to the Belvedere Club, he headed down to his wine cellar. When he picked out a fair Zinfandel, that only confirmed the funk he was in. For whatever reason, Julius only drank Zinfandel when he was sulking, and the more he was sulking the fairer the label of Zinfandel he would choose. I kept quiet about it. I waited until he returned back to his kitchen and prepared a plate of assorted cheeses and crackers to bring out to his private garden-level patio before mentioning to him how he could be sampling exceptional cognacs now instead of drinking what was at best a fair Zinfandel, one that the Wine Spectator had scored at only 81.

Julius sat on a red cedar Adirondack chair that had faded over the years to a muted rust-color and poured himself a glass of the aforementioned wine. His gaze wandered to one of the many rose bushes that were in bloom. The patio was the crown jewel of his townhouse; over two thousand square feet, which Julius had professionally landscaped with Japanese maples, fountains, and a vast assortment of other plantings.

“This is what suits me now, Archie,” he said.

His sulking wasn’t going to do him any good. I knew it wasn’t over the lost fee, but instead over the fact that he had spent twenty-five minutes entertaining Kingston in his office, time that could’ve been spent in other pursuits. At first I thought of needling him about this childish display of his in an attempt to knock him out of it, but decided to try a different approach knowing that his mood was also being affected by Lily Rosten’s absence and the sting of his recent poker losses.

“I’m sorry about booking that appointment,” I said. “I thought it was a legitimate case. He promised that ten thousand dollar fee, but all he would tell me was that it was matter of extreme importance. A life and death issue.”

“Not your fault, Archie,” Julius said.

“Yeah, well, I still owe you an apology. If I had seen him first instead of just talking to him over the phone, I would’ve sized him up better. You know those Italian loafers he was wearing? Six hundred and twenty-four dollars was the lowest price I could find online. That alone should tell you everything you need to know about the guy. I’m surprised you didn’t invite him to your next poker game. You could’ve taken him for a bundle.”

Julius smiled thinly at that. “I was tempted,” he admitted. “But it would’ve meant several more hours of his company, which I decided was a poor bargain at best. Archie, for now I’d like some quiet.”

Yeah, I got it. He wanted to sulk, and he didn’t want me interfering with that. Fine. While he sat and drank his wine, I did some hunting for a prospective client to replace Kingston but couldn’t find any suitable candidates, and after that spent my time playing poker online. I won three hundred and forty dollars, bringing my balance to a little over four thousand dollars, which I had built from the twenty dollars they gave me as a promotion for opening up an account. I didn’t keep many secrets from Julius. In fact, my having this money was the only one, but I had my reason so I adjusted my programming to allow me to keep this one secret from him.

_______________________________________________

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