Daly City, 1989: If you read a Dashiel Hammett book about Sam Spade, or even a modern Sue Grafton book about Kinsey Milhone, you will discover that their investigations are exciting, dangerous, and apparently pay the bills. (Though Sam Spade seemingly just throws his bills into the trash.)
When I was Dr. Detecto, the private investigator, my own investigations were neither exciting, nor dangerous, nor did they pay the bills.
As proof, I respectfully submit my most exciting, dangerous, and profitable case — the Case of the Rescued Rope …
I was musing in my Geary street office one afternoon in the early fall in San Francisco. The air had just turned crisp, and I was thinking about the gubbamint and dozing off, when a tall woman walked past the window. I knew she was tall because my office was on the second floor.
Wait! No, no- I was dreaming. And awakened by a phone call. It was a lawyer.
“I’ve got a case that needs immediate action,” he told me.
“I’m your man,” I said.
Quickly he gave me the sketch. In the woods not far behind an elementary school in Daly City was a tree. Upon the tree was affixed a large rope. Somebody had swung on that rope.
Then they fell off.
Naturally, instead of just realizing they were a clumsy oaf, the idea of suing the owner of the woods and the tree was far more appealing. Apparently no difficulty was found in locating an attorney prepared to accept the case.
The lawyer now on my phone was equally happy to defend the owner of the woods and the tree.
My job: Get that rope.
On the way down to Daly City, I mused upon social equality and literary criticism. I had lunch at McDonalds; it was on the way.
When I reached the neighborhood, I drove slowly up and down, trying to follow the lawyer’s vague directions. Finally, I gave up and walked up the sidewalk. Soon I found a home where two small boys frolicked as their mother watered some earnest flowers.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” I said. “I’m trying to find a rope swing that’s supposed to be in the woods near here. Would you possibly know where it might be?” As I expected, the two boys had ended their tussle to come and listen.
“I know where it is!” exclaimed one. He gave me directions.
Following his advice, I drove to the next block and wound my way past some trash cans, and found myself wandering in a gray and deserted wood. Tall oaks loomed overhead, limbs already bare to the coming season. Being a trained investigator I quickly found the tree in question.
There sure was a rope, all right.
In fact, it was a real big rope, like from a ship or something. Perhaps three inches in diameter. Not your average rope. Hmmm. That might be a clue.
I was going to have to climb that tree. It had been a number of years since I’d climbed a tree. I wasn’t sure how well my balance would hold up, and I’d grown fatter since then, too. I procrastinated, and looked for more clues. In the grass I found a zippo lighter. It had the initials “M.J.” That was a definite clue. I clicked the lighter. It sparked, but was out of fluid. Probably it had been there a while. I pocketed the clue.
Reluctantly, I climbed up the tree, step by step, scraping my hands and clothing. In mounting fear, I inched my way out along the hefty limb. Finally I reached the rope, and after a great amount of wrestling and scruffing my hands further, I managed to untie the rope. It fell to the ground.
Slowly and painfully I made my way down the tree. I thought I heard something. Was I being watched? I could see nobody.
Free of the devilish tree, I gathered up the rope into rough coils, and like a staggering pirate I returned to my car, and threw the rope into the trunk. I drove back to my office, and called the lawyer.
“I’ve got the rope,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “Send me your bill.”
“What do you want me to do with the rope?”
“Just keep it,” he said, “Just store it for a while.”
I stored the rope in the back room behind the kitchen, with the refrigerator and the printing supplies. It was bulky; it took up a lot of room.
The next year, there was a zoning complaint and I was forced to give up the office. I moved out. The lawyer had paid my bill, but I never heard from him again. I don’t remember what happened to the rope.
Some months later, one day I found the lighter. Hmmm.
That was a definite clue.