Serge & Een

an excerpt

Wednesday 7:21 P.M.

The door to the outer office burst open. The man's eyes danced from me to Duncan to Georgia. The stranger's overcoat flapped open revealing red smears on a bright yellow hooded sweatshirt. The man swayed, clutched the edge of the door, gasped, pulled in a huge breath, and shrieked, "They're trying to kill me!"

He collapsed.

Not the usual way clients introduced themselves at the Mike King Detective Agency. When they get to my office, they usually aren't hysterical. Maybe frustrated, often put out, likely annoyed, even all the way up the scale to totally pissed off and willing to do anything or almost anything to get even. Private detectives deal with a whole lot more pissed off than panic-stricken.

He was the first client who thrust himself through the door and then passed out.

The three of us were working late, finishing notes on a case involving blackmail among some super rich gay men with summer cottages in the Hamptons and winter homes in the south of France. We'd hoped that blackmailing gay people, for whatever reason, had become passe. We were wrong, but we'd solved the case and some bad guys were in jail.

The three of us rushed forward. I grabbed a cushion from the couch for his head. Georgia took a carafe of water from the tea tray, and hunkered down next to me on the floor. Duncan joined us and helped cradle the man's head.

We leaned over the new guy. He was breathing, and my fingertips on his carotid artery confirmed that his pulse was pulsing. The left lens of his black, horn-rimmed glasses was cracked. Duncan lifted the man's head far enough so I could place the cushion under it.

Duncan pointed to the smears on the yellow hoody. "Blood?"

I nodded. "Most likely."

The hood of the stranger's sweatshirt had twisted and hid half his face. I pushed it back and then removed his hat. I realized the dark smears on his gloves and coat were blood just like that which showed on his sweatshirt. No blood on or around his head. A cursory feel over his brush-cut blond hair gave no indication of out-of-the ordinary bumps.

His head lolled. I unwrapped the scarf from around his heavily muffled neck to be sure he wasn't inadvertently strangling himself and to check for other injuries.

He looked bedraggled, wet, and exhausted, as if someone had ripped and torn his Army war surplus clothes then washed and dried them a thousand times without using fabric softener. Then the clothes would be stored in a heap on someone's floor until picked up to be worn. He smelled like he'd been putting on extra deodorant to cover not having bathed in a several days, not the most pleasant combination.

Georgia asked, "Is this another one of your cataclysmic corpse contacts biting the dust?"

I said, "I've never met him."

Georgia said, "Wouldn't be the first one." Georgia De'Jungle was one of my top operatives. "That's Georgia De'Jungle with an E," she always added. Georgia was the most accomplished drag queen on the North American continent. She was my disguise expert. Her ability to disguise herself was unknown. That's how good she was. If she was legendary or unrivaled, that would mean people would know what she was up to.

I paid her handsomely to take care of some of the most delicate work for the firm. At the moment she wore an evening gown designed by Pasta Fagioli, the pseudonym of an ethnically challenged Chicago designer she favored. The designer was so exclusive, he didn't do fashion shows. Just designed for select clients.

Besides helping us finish our end-of-case details, Georgia had been preparing to go out for her evening's work.

Duncan asked me, "Didn't you have a conquest who keeled over? In Berlin I think it was. Last year? When that gay ambassador from Lichtenberg was kidnapped and the relatives who didn't trust the government wanted you to save him? You seduced one of the kidnappers in the back room of some leather museum in Berlin, wasn't it? And that guy keeled over?"

"He didn't 'keel over'. He wanted to be in that position. He kept repeating, 'please, daddy'. And there is no Lichtenberg." I leaned back. "And that's not important at the moment." While I continued to monitor this guy's pulse, I added, "They don't keel over. They just don't work out." I examined the man's face and then repeated. "I don't know this guy."

Georgia gave me her best smirk. "Dead's a pretty for sure sign they didn't work out."

I said, "This one is breathing."

Georgia said, "You're sure he's not another one of your conquests gone bad?"

I said, "I'm sure."

Even in the most outre circumstances, they often teased me about my lack of success at dating. This qualified maybe among the top five in outre comment moments. And they didn't all die. Seldom, in fact.

The prostrate man continued to breathe.

I could smell the slightest whiff of Georgia's subtle perfume.

I cradled the guy's head and upper torso. Bits of melting snow dripped onto the floor from his bulky overcoat.

Next, I eased off the heavy outer garments. As I undid each item, Georgia and Duncan helped me rearrange his body. Then Georgia took each item and stretched it out to dry on the couch. The guy's skin-tight jeans had no smears. The logo on the long-sleeve T-shirt taut on his gaunt frame read "Frodo Lives" in fourteen point type. Hard to see at almost any distance. I liked him for the message.

His running shoes were inappropriate for the weather and were soaked through to his sodden socks. Georgia placed these four items close to a heating vent.

I lifted the T-shirt from his emaciated and inert frame. No wounds on his torso.

After examining him I said, "No obvious wounds. The blood must be somebody else's."

Duncan asked, "Heart attack, stroke, plain old faint?"

I took out my cell phone, punched in 9-1-1.

Duncan checked the guy's coat pockets. He muttered, "No weapons." No need to take chances about a possibly armed intruder even though he was incapacitated at the moment. Duncan pulled out a wallet from the left back pocket of the man's skinny jeans, keys and a phone from his right front pocket.

I told the emergency operator where I was. She said with the rising storm and all the accidents in the city, it might be a while before anyone could respond.

"No," I said in answer to her question, "there doesn't seem to be any immediate danger." She suggested I try to get him to the nearest hospital a few blocks north and a block or two east.

I hung up.

Duncan handed me the wallet, a tattered black billfold with five crisp one hundred dollar bills and a couple ones.

His Illinois driver's license said his name was Jamie Vincek.

The man's eyelids fluttered then opened. "Who? What?" He snatched his wallet from me, and his keys and phone from Duncan's hands. He shoved the accoutrements back into his pockets and then tried to stand, but he faltered and fell back. I caught him before his head thunked onto the floor. He shook his head but forbore to rise and stayed in my arms.

He saw my phone which was still in my hand. He swatted at it.

I kept it up and out of his reach.

"No calls." His voice was just short of another shriek.

I held him in my arms and tried to be soothing. "Shush. Hush. We need to get you help."

His second attempt to scramble to his feet succeeded. The three of us stood up as well. He gazed down at his unshod feet, then caught sight of his shoes and socks drying next to the air vent. I held out an arm toward Vincek. He staggered two steps to the wall and propped himself against it with his left hand. He was managing on his own for the moment.

Between great panting gasps for breath, he said, "Please, no phone calls. Please stop!" His shrieking had changed to pleading.

I put my phone away.

I asked, "Who's trying to kill you?"

He glanced wildly around the room. His eyes came to rest on me. "You're Mike King?"


"I'm Jamie Vincek."

Beyond what I'd seen on his driver's license, the name meant nothing to me. He looked at me as if I should recognize it.

With the index finger on his trembling right hand, he pointed at the New York Times on top of Duncan's desk. "It's in there already!"

I kept my voice low and soothing. "Why don't we step into my office where you can tell me how I can help you?"

"Is it safe here?" he demanded.

I said, "It's as safe as anywhere, I suppose."

I placed a hand on his elbow and steered him toward the inner office.

Georgia said, "I'm late for this evening's gig." She was performing undercover as a torch singer. She did a pretty good Bessie Smith. I didn't think there'd be much of crowd in this weather, but she was a trouper. She left.

Vincek responded to the slight pressure on his elbow by moving forward. I picked up the copy of the Times as I helped propel him toward my office.

Wednesday 7:28 P.M.

I got him settled in a comfy client chair. Duncan placed a glass and a bottle of water next to him on the end table. He helped Vincek off with his T-shirt. It had a few red smears of it on the end of each sleeve. Duncan said, "I'll get you a replacement for that." Duncan put the T-shirt on a towel on the couch on the right side of the room. He left and closed the door.

I settled behind my old teacher's desk that I got at a sale at a failed university.

I said, "You have blood on your clothes, and it doesn't seem to be yours."

"I'm in trouble."

"The bleeding person would seem to be in more trouble."

Tears sprang to his eyes. "He's dead. I held my friend in my arms as he died. Blake is dead. I loved him. I could never tell him that when he was alive. Now I never will." His blank stare settled into the middle distance like a character in a nineteenth century British novel. Tears leaked down his cheeks. I took a box of tissues out of the top drawer of the desk and held it out to him. He took several and wiped his cheeks.

"What happened?" I asked.