Softly, the patter. His eyelids opened. Above him the ceiling revealed a square of light, a bruised blue behind the raindrops falling against the glass. He gargled the sandpaper at the back of his throat and twisted his neck sideways to read the clock. The numbers were unfortunate. 11:16 a.m. He was due at the Idlewild at midday.
Crumpling to his feet he rolled from left to right. A convenience store polo shirt and a plastic badge reading Hi, my name is: SAM lay beside him on the floor. He kicked idly at the shirt and almost collapsed, seasick, back onto the bed.
Finding his feet proved both metaphorically and literally easier than it should have. This, he knew, was a bad sign. He shaved poorly, dabbed cologne onto his face and dressed in his only suit, a dark blue, shapeless cut of cloth, before exiting his apartment by 11:51.
* * *
The rain had let up. His skylight had been the victim of a passing shower. He parked across the street, slipped his car keys into an inside pocket and pushed open the door to the Idlewild.
An L-shaped bar greeted him. Shining glasses unironically, the bartender glanced in his direction; on the long upstroke of the bar sat a woman in her early forties, staring distantly at the glass in front of her. Neither of these was his subject.
His eyes finally came to rest on the short end of the bar. A man was perched on one of the tall barstools, vigilant but deeply settled, as though he did not want his presence to be noticed. Crossing the room, a forgotten scent emanated from the woman, who was now swinging a hand across her torso as though conducting some silent symphony.
He reached the end of the bar and his eyes locked on the stranger, his subject, the detective.
“My name is Sam Butler,” he said, proffering a hand. “I’m here for the interview and—sorry I’m late—.“ The stranger completed his handshake.
“Yes, from Adventure & Intrigue magazine.” The detective crossed his legs in a manner almost feminine, tugged the cuffs of his white shirt another half-inch towards his fingertips, and tilted his head approximately forty-five degrees to the left.
“Dimmer than a thirty watt bulb at midnight,” he said, thumbing in the woman’s direction as he gestured for the bartender. The young man, close-shaven and handsome, placed a tumbler in front of Butler and moved away in slow motion.
No doubt an out-of-work actor, thought Butler, as the detective picked up a decanter and poured. The light was low but he could make out an autumnal copper stream tinkling and twirling into the glass. The detective’s eyes seemed to glow under the soft lamplight; the colour of his irises matched the background of heavy drapes.
“So what does your readership want to know?”
Butler paused, withdrawing from his pocket a small, black box. He made a May I? motion with his hands and the detective nodded. He pressed rec and said:
“Why do you come here? To the Idlewild?”
“For the atmosphere, Mr. Butler.” He made an expansive gesture and glanced at the conductress. “The smells and colours, the lights at midnight. People tell you what you want to hear by candlelight.”
“And what about real life?” asked Butler. “Pastimes, women—“ glancing at his left hand. “How does life square up to your career?”
The detective laughed. “I don’t go to the cinema or collect stamps. And I’m not married.” His face creased in the right spots. “I come to the Idlewild.”
He leaned in conspiratorially and said: “In subdued lighting the heartbeat slows to almost nothing. The Idlewild, by that reasoning, hardly exists at all.”
Leaning back he took up his glass to drink. Butler did the same, attempting to interpret the words now passing between the bartender and the woman. She was pouting, unpouting, blinking too slowly; he began to appreciate the detective’s assessment of her.
The detective unwound his legs, tied them in the other direction. He straightened and said towards the Dictaphone: “We are all actors in tiny cages, Mr. Butler. We have such a small arena in which to perform.” He paused for no reason. “We are small cogs in a large machine. It’s just that—I would rather be the oil.”
He leaned back for another sip. His aquiline nose and severe jaw were filmic, cast angular shadows on the deep green curtains. He wore his tie loose. Beneath his suit jacket Butler imagined the outline of a pistol like a poorly wrapped Christmas present.
They could hear the conductress’ voice simpering at the other end of the room, as though transmitted through a tin-can telephone. She was pretty in a leonine way, honey-coloured hair pulled back from her forehead, skin stretched tight over high cheekbones. I tipped the remaining whisky into my mouth.
“You’re trying to get to the centre of my philosophy, Mr. Butler.” It was not a question. “You are a poet? A newshound?”
“A writer.” He bobbed his head in agreement and poured again, first for his subject and then for himself. The stream of liquid caught the candlelight and made a perfect arc before coming to rest. A literal spirit level.
“All the great writers in the world, each great detective, they understand one thing: Every production of nature has had a history.” Butler didn’t argue. “Every complex structure is the summing up of many contrivances.”
“Is that what you do? Deconstruct? Decontrive?” He shrugged off the question, picked up his glass and leaned back into his seat.
“In my work I am turned into a sort of machine. A machine built for observing facts, extinguishing lies and grinding out conclusions.”
After some verbal arithmetic Butler said: “Well my job is to extinguish facts, grind out lies and observe conclusions.”
“Newshound…” murmured his companion.
Through the glass sides of his tumbler, the detective’s sharp lines were made bulbous and clownish. As he watched the man taking a drink, Butler imagined oil derricks dipping and rising. Small cogs in a large machine. He placed his glass on the formica counter. It cast a flickering candlelit shadow in one direction; in the other the bar lights produced a stiff, stark phantom.
The detective lifted his glass and made a small circle with his left hand. Half-hearted ice cubes chimed. “To the oil,” he said.
Butler raised his own glass and accepted the toast.
* * *
The moonlight shone into his room as he replaced the dark blue suit on its hanger and clawed the convenience store shirt from the carpet. His shift began at ten. Pulling on the shirt and pinning the badge to his chest, Butler lay down on the bed and looked up through the skylight. He was little more than shadows bent around corners.
After his shift, he sat between a shaft of sunrise and an off-white wall typing up the transcript of his interview. The editor at Adventure & Intrigue could hardly be expected to believe this David Lynch dialogue. At the top of the page, he added the title:
We Never Sleep: An Interview with Detective Allan Pinkerton.