The Dullest Little Detective Agency in Texas

Rasp rasp rasp rasp. Rasp rasp rasp rasp.

"Oh, ow. Oh shit, ow."

Perfect. I had now filed the last of my nails down to the quick. Sucking at my wounded pinky, I looked at the clock. Two p.m. Three and a half more hours to go. I'm sure a real receptionist would have come up with some activity to fill the time--filing, or collating, or something, but I'm not a real receptionist, so I was lost. I'm a temp--a grad student really, working on my thesis in American Studies--but it's the summer and I needed something to pay the bills. My fellow grad students look down on temping, after all, it's buying into the Master Narrative, aiding and abetting the Bosses/the Patriarchy/the Straight White Men and all that. As I see it, however, subverting the Master Narrative is an unpaid-summer-internship sort of position, and temping is pretty lucrative. So, temping it was, and for the month of July I was working at Malone and Malone, the only detective agency in Kaydee, Texas, population 50,000.

Temping at a detective agency had, initally, held a certain charm for an American studies major: After all, as a student of film noir I dug the idea of being the spunky and loyal Girl Friday for a month. Now, I like dress-up as much as the next person, but I as I had learned, Lauren Bacall must have had air conditioning on-set. When it's hot, red lipstick bleeds and crisp linen suits wilt. And of course, Bacall had had people around. I hadn't seen a single person in the week I had been sitting at reception, so I had wanted to deliver snappy one-liners I would have had to proposition the desk mirror.

This is where the nail filing came in. Secretaries file their nails--their dangerous, sexy, pointy red nails--in thrillers, and since I'm nothing if not into historical accuracy, I was giving it a whirl. (Of course, since reading looks "unprofessional"--the quotation marks are courtesy of fat and malicious placement lady at Tina's Temps--and I don't knit or cross stitch, filing my nails was not only period-accurate but just about the only activity I had to kill the time at Malone and Malone.) And now, of course, it was shot, too.

I looked around the office, and for the fourth or fifth time since noon my eyes landed on a framed and yellowing newspaper clipping, featuring a photo of two men shaking hands and squinting into the camera. The caption underneath--I had had it memorized by the second day--read " Brothers Francis and Terry Malone beam at the opening of Malone and Malone Dectective Agency, the first of its kind in Kaydee." As I had learned from the story below, Francis Malone and his brother Terry originally hailed from San Francisco, where detective agencies were both a historical tradition and a cottage industry. Apparently, Francis the ex-cop had moved here in late seventies on some sort of real-estate/oil speculation deal (the specifics were a little fuzzy), and when it fell through stayed in town out of sheer spite. Terry, a former insurance agent, had joined him a year later, and together they had opened the town's first honest-to-God detective agency. Improbably they had stayed in business, even as the rise of no-fault divorce laws and the dwindling popularity of the fedora had sounded the death knell of P.Is, but investigations for insurance agencies and the odd lawsuit had kept them afloat. It had been a family operation until last week, when Terry's wife, Fiona, who did their bookkeeping and billing, such as it was, had been laid up with a broken hipbone. Enter me.

Two-oh-four p.m. It felt like I was drowning in porridge. Bland, beige, boring unflavored porridge. I fanned my fingers out and considered them. Nope, there sure wasn't anything left to file except for flesh. I laid my head down on the desk and quietly moaned.

It was then that the door opened, and in walked fate.