This story first appeared in SALT Magazine, November ’12 – January 2013 issue.
Christian Holmes: Inspection
I sat back in my chair and stared around the room. I had been in it often enough, but never just to wait, and never alone.
The clock on the wall ticked, its golden pendulum swinging slowly and unceasingly. Two paintings hung on the walls, vaguely pleasant but certainly not eye-catching. The windows, draped in dark green, gave a glimpse of a tree and, beyond it, asphalt.
My eyes traveled over all of it and settled again on the leather chair on the other side of the desk. It was strange to see that empty, too.
Then, softly, the door knob turned. I stood up and looked toward the door just as Supervisor Lunferd came in. A man I did not know followed—blond, a couple inches taller than me, wearing dark-rimmed glasses.
The supervisor stopped when he reached me. “I apologize for making you wait, Agent Holmes. We were delayed.” He half-turned to the blond man behind him. “Agent Holmes, I would like you to meet Daniel Lars. He was sent down here by the head office.”
For a second I froze, my hand stretched in midair. Then we shook. “Must be an exciting time up there,” I remarked. Tense, too.
He offered a slight smile. “It’s been interesting, especially for me.”
I meant to follow up on that, but Lunferd motioned to us. “Sit down, gentlemen.”
We gathered around the desk. Lars had, I suddenly saw, a briefcase, which he rested on his knees. He clasped his hands on it and looked, expectantly, at the supervisor.
“One of the director’s first initiatives,” Lunferd said, “is to create a central database for the entire CBI. Agent Lars is here on that business.”
The new director had taken over the CBI a month earlier, and we had been watching for any sign from him ever since. This was the first he had given us, and I turned it over in my mind. Centralization. Ah well, at least he wasn’t sending down inspectors or proclaiming our need for new blood.
Feeling slightly more secure, I turned to Lars. “What sort of work are you doing—network file sharing, data dump …” And my computer knowledge ran out.
“That will be part of it,” he answered. “But my primary job here is to make sure that everything that ought to be in the data dump gets there.”
As I tried to figure out if that implied an insult, the supervisor leaned forward. “Agent Holmes, I am assigning you to help with this. Log him onto the computer system and show him how to navigate it. Later you will help him with our hard-file system.”
That meant the basement. I held back a sigh. “Everything there is more than a decade old. How far back do we need to go?”
“That is for Agent Lars to decide. I want Agent Belden to work with you, too. He’s in Research, and he would like to get out.”
It was not like the supervisor to throw in unrelated facts, and I tried to see what Belden’s career problems had to do with the assignment. Then I asked, “Sir, is this centralization project somehow connected to Belden wanting a transfer?”
Supervisor Lunferd glanced at Lars. “I have already discussed this with Agent Lars. He knows that Agent Belden used to be a field agent and was reassigned to Research because he couldn’t maintain a partnership with anyone. I want to make him a field agent again, but only if he has learned that he must show more patience. This assignment will be his test. Both you and Agent Lars have a part to play.”
“I,” Lars said, “will be annoying.”
I looked him over again. His appearance still gave the impression of an academic out of water. “That’s your part?”
The supervisor nodded. “And your part, Agent Holmes, is to watch. I want to know how well Agent Belden handles it. If you can tell me, at the end of this assignment, that he demonstrated even some patience and forbearance, I will make him a field agent again.”
“He would want that.” But I didn’t think the test was on his best subject. Resourcefulness, persistence, good instincts for the work—those were all Belden’s strong suits. Patience had never been a natural virtue of his. “In school, sir, they always give advanced warning about your tests.”
“One of the differences between school and real life is that you don’t get advanced warning. Sometimes you even take the test without knowing it.”
True, for better or for worse. I stood up, sensing the end of the conversation. “Is there anything more, sir?”
“No. You and Agent Lars may get started now.”
Lars stood up, shifting his briefcase to one hand. “Thank you, sir.”
He and I left together. Walking down the hall, I asked, “Do you know Supervisor Lunferd from somewhere?”
“Yes. He was my supervisor for a few months, back when I first started at the CBI. How did you guess?”
I shrugged. “A hunch. If he would ask you to do something like this, I thought you might be at least a little more than a stranger.”
“Has he done this before?”
“No.” Not that I knew of, anyway. And I began to slip into a reflection, not wholly free from worry, about what tests I may have passed or failed without knowing it.
“You don’t seem surprised.”
I glanced at him. “Should I be?”
“I would say that depends on his management style.”
I considered that, considered even more my answer. “He’s a flexible manager. I’m not surprised if he uses a special method for a special case.” Then, deciding a change of subject would be for the better, I said, “Normally we get by without thinking much about the head office. But since we came under new management, we keep waiting to see if they’ll do anything to us. Any rumblings of change?”
He swung his briefcase. “Nothing solid.”
That only made me want to ask if there was something not solid, but the way he had started studying the walls made me think the question wouldn’t be welcome. I refocused my attention ahead.
And I saw Greg Belden coming toward us down the hall. I took a breath. It might as well begin now.
I moved to stop him. “Hi, Greg. I’d like you to meet someone. This is Daniel Lars, down from the head office. Lars, this is Greg Belden.”
Belden extended his hand. “Head office?”
Lars shook his hand. “Yes. I flew down last night.”
“So you came on a plane?” Belden’s tone, like his question, was friendly, but his eyes seemed to be examining Lars.
“No,” Lars answered. “I came on a magic carpet.”
Belden just stood there for a minute, his dark eyes sharply focused as if completing the examination. Then he threw an arm around Lars’ shoulders. “I like you. Maybe we can get together sometime.”
He went on down the hall, and both of us watched. Then we looked at each other. “You’re going to have to try another tack,” I said.
“I’ll figure one out.” He hefted his briefcase. “Where are we going?”
It took me a minute of thinking to remember. “My office, I guess. I can get you set up on my computer. How long will you need?”
“Today, only a few hours. By lunch I should be ready to start looking into the hard files.”
I nodded. Then it would be down into the basement for both of us.
The principal advantage of the research department was that it rarely worked late. The principal disadvantage of the research department was that it worked in the basement.
Contrary to whatever appearance was presented, and whatever jokes were told, this was not a sort of employee apartheid. There had been good reasons to establish the research department in the basement; some of them were even still with us. All the hard files were stored down there, and had always been. Our library was also in the basement. It began decades ago, when a retired lawyer donated his legal books to the CBI. They were still the centerpiece of the collection—heavy volumes with Latin phrases and numerous footnotes in very small print. They were rarely opened.
The last of the space was filled up by the researchers. If anybody had to work among the books and documents, it seemed only natural that it be them.
Right after lunch I descended into the basement. I wove past rows of shelves and filing cabinets to reach Belden. He sat at his desk in a sudden area of open space, typing away at his computer.
He stopped when I approached. “Welcome to my world.”
I looked at the line of filing cabinets on one side, the shelf of books on the other, and then back at him. “Doesn’t suit you.”
“If only the supervisor would agree.”
Given what I knew and he didn’t, I decided not to answer that. “Have you heard about our new assignment?”
“Marge called me.”
“Good. Lars should be down soon. He’s talking with our fellow employees.”
Belden squinted at the computer screen. “Lunch break ended ten minutes ago.”
“That’s why he’ll be down soon. I don’t know, Belden. When I first met him, he struck me as a quiet person. And I maintained that impression for the entire morning—right up until we went for lunch. He spent the whole break chatting up people—asking their names, where they live, what they do here.” I fell silent, trying to understand the burst of gregariousness against his quiet demeanor the rest of the day.
Belden turned back to the computer. “What I don’t understand is this centralization project. Why can’t they ask for whatever documents they need, like they always have?”
I shrugged. “They probably think a central database is more efficient.”
“I think it gives them a feeling of power.”
A new voice broke into our conversation: “I take it you disapprove.”
I turned to see Lars, emerging from beyond the book case with his gaze focused on Belden.
“Let’s just say,” Belden answered, “that when it comes to headquarters, I’m a federalist.”
Lars stopped in front of the desk and looked down at Belden. “Are you a federalist in the classic Hamiltonian sense or in the neo-modern conservative sense?”
“Can you define those terms?”
“I was afraid you could.” Belden said nothing more to pursue the matter—wisely enough, in my opinion.
Lars, apparently, was content to let it go, too. He set his briefcase on the desk. “Let’s get to work. I’ll need the desk.”
Belden shrugged. “Grab a chair.”
Lars regarded him. “I’ll need the computer, too.”
Belden didn’t speak, didn’t look at Lars, didn’t move so much as a finger. Lars held himself equally still, until, finally, Belden stood up and stepped aside.
Lars took his chair without even a thank-you. “How much do you know about the database?”
Belden didn’t look like he meant to answer, so I did. “It was built before I got here.”
“But how much do you know?”
I raised an eyebrow. Wasn’t he supposed to be irritating Belden? “Only that it goes back ten years. Before that, and you have to look in the basement.”
Lars tapped on the keys. “There are files here dated older than that.”
“Lars”—Belden’s tone carried a faint air of exasperation—“ten years ago isn’t when we got our first computers. It’s when the file system became completely computerized. There are some stray documents from before that floating in the computer system.”
“You know more about this than Agent Holmes.”
“That’s because I work in Research.”
“So”—Lars showed what I thought excessive interest in the subject—“you got acquainted with the file system by being a researcher?”
“No. I got acquainted with it by talking to the filing cabinets.”
“You have too much time on your hands, Agent Belden.” It was impossible to tell how much he was joking, or even if he was joking at all. Still gazing at the screen, he said, “Now, I’ll need first the latest fiscal reports stored down here, going back five years.”
That was all. He said nothing more, didn’t so much as glance at us. Evidently we were supposed to go fetch.
Belden turned and walked away. I followed, hoping he knew where we were supposed to go, because I didn’t.
We went deeper into the basement, finally stopping at a bank of cabinets. “Is this it?” I asked Belden.
He nodded, digging out a set of keys from his pocket. He unlocked the nearest cabinet and started rifling through the files.
With nothing to do, I observed him. “They ought to put up little signs down here.”
“I’d be content with a raise.” Belden handed me a raft of folders and turned back to the drawer. “I wonder where that guy came from.”
Guessing he meant Lars, I said, “Headquarters.”
Belden gave me another stack of files and went back, once more, to those that remained. “Notice he called us Agent Belden and Agent Holmes?”
I did, in fact. “Maybe he just likes formality.”
Belden grabbed some folders and slammed the drawer shut. “Maybe he doesn’t know how to play the part.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know. But give me a few days and I’ll develop a hypothesis.” He marched away, and I hurried to keep up. I didn’t want to be left alone in the maze.
When we turned unexpectedly—at least to me—into Belden’s work space, Lars was writing in a small notebook, his glasses on the desk by his hand. At our arrival, he closed the notebook, slipped it into his pocket, and put the glasses back on. “Do you have it?”
“Yes.” I shifted the files in my arms and glanced over at Belden. He mouthed a word; I think it was hypothesis.
The stack of files was about a foot high, and I slid the folders back into the cabinet with grim speed. One and then another, one and then another. The last three days of my life had been eaten up by files – taking them out, bringing them to Lars, carrying them up the stairs, running them through the computer scanner, carrying them back down the stairs, filing them away. I had begun to feel a vague resentment of the basement, the scanner, and the awful printed papers.
I slipped in the last file, closed the drawer, and turned around. Belden stood nearby, pulling documents out of another cabinet.
I watched him, my feelings not wholly untinged by dread. He shut the metal drawer with an echoing clang and glanced at me. We shared an understanding look and headed out.
It took a minute or two to wind our way out of the cabinets to Belden’s desk. It was empty.
I took one of the chairs, accepting the break. “He’s gone.”
“Good.” Belden thumped down the files by the monitor. “I tell you, Holmes, that guy is a trial. I have been practicing superhuman restraint for three days, but I don’t know how much longer I can take it.”
He had shown more restraint than I would have expected, but sometimes he got a look in his eyes that made me fear all his restraint would break in an explosion of classic proportions. “I wonder where he went,” I remarked idly.
Belden sat in his chair; I realized, watching him settle in front of the computer, that I had begun to think of it as Lars’. Wherever he went, he had left his briefcase on the desk, his notebook laying open on top of it. His glasses, too, laid on the desk.
As I entertained the idea that Lars was farsighted rather than shortsighted, Belden began tapping on the briefcase. He tapped with both hands, first on the sides, then on the top. The hollow noise carried easily.
Abruptly he pulled his hands back, and then slowly rotated the briefcase. And he stared intensely at the open pages of the notebook.
The writing was, from his viewpoint, upside down, and it took me a moment to ask the question. “Are you reading that?”
“Trying.” He craned his neck, leaning forward.
“Belden, that’s …” Eavesdropping popped into my mind, but that couldn’t be right. “That’s snooping.”
“If you read it upside down, it’s detective work.”
“You know better than that.”
Apparently he did. Belden slowly straightened up and flipped the notebook shut. Then he picked up Lars’ glasses.
“I’m not hurting anything.” He turned the glasses over in his hand, peered through the lenses, and finally put them on.
I coughed back a laugh. “Not your style.”
Belden removed the glasses and set them down. Then he leaned back in the chair, hands folded together, and gave me a self-satisfied look. “Are you ready for my hypothesis?”
“I’ve been observing Daniel Lars. Here’s what I’ve noticed: One, he’s nosy. He gets introduced to someone, and next thing you know he has the person’s background and work history. Two, he carries around a briefcase”—Belden rapped it—“that he never opens. Three, his glasses are fake. Four …” He hesitated, shame crossing his face, but finished. “Four, he’s making notes about us.”
I glanced at the notebook, then back at Belden. “And?”
“And …” He paused, seeming to relish the suspense. “And so, he’s a reporter.”
“A reporter?” I let my skepticism bleed freely into my voice.
“An undercover reporter, doing a story on the CBI.”
“Ah. Well, then, I guess you shouldn’t have gotten into that food fight with Thompson in the lunch room yesterday.”
“We didn’t throw food.”
“I was speaking metaphorically. Anyway, Belden, the supervisor told us to work with him. He’s convinced that Lars is a CBI agent.”
Belden shook his head, adamant. “Mark my words, he’s faking us out.”
My gaze drifted, settled on Lars’ glasses. I had begun to wonder if they really were fake when Lars returned. He stopped in front of Belden, an air of expectation in his posture.
Belden, moving slowly, gave up the chair.
Lars settled in. “Agent Holmes, you and I will go over these numbers. Agent Belden, get me some coffee.”
I stared at him, but he casually put his glasses on and opened a folder. Then I looked at Belden. He stared down at Lars, rigid from his toes to his eyebrows. His expression was, in all the years we had worked together, new to me; I couldn’t read it. Yet I thought it was the expression of a man in a supreme act of self-control—or plotting retaliation.
Belden motioned vaguely upward. “You were just upstairs.”
Lars looked at him. “And?”
Belden grasped the edge of the desk and leaned in. “You know, Lars, ever since you first showed up with your glasses and your briefcase and your attitude, there’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you.”
Lars closed the folder, granting Belden his full attention. “What is it?”
Belden opened his mouth, but it took a moment for the words to come out. “Cream or sugar?”
Belden nodded—a jerky sort of nod, as if he wasn’t used to the motion—and took himself away.
I looked at Lars, who had quietly resumed his work. “You’re doing a good job of testing him.” So good I had started to think that some of it was just his personality coming through.
He didn’t answer. Lars paged through the file, and I watched. And for no good reason, it suddenly came into my mind that maybe Belden had a point after all. If Lars wasn’t a reporter, maybe he was something else we didn’t know about.
I shook my head, trying to shake away the idea, and at that moment noticed that Lars was looking at me. He indicated the folder in front of him. “In the last fiscal report of the year, they list a donation of 17,000. But they don’t list a donor, and I can’t find any other record about it.”
“That”—we both turned at the voice to see Belden emerging from the shelves—“is because a fire destroyed some of the old records.” Belden plunked a mug of coffee on the desk, and brown liquid sloshed over and ran down the side of the cup.
I tapped my fingers against the desk, something clicking in my brain. “17,000. You know, that might have been Mr. MacGruen. He’s rich, he’s been a donor to the CBI for years, and seventeen is his favorite number.”
“I’ve seen his name quite a few times,” Lars said. “Why does he give so generously to the CBI?”
Belden smiled. “He’s fond of us.”
Lars looked at him, then back at me. “Why?”
“Because, back when he was a kid, he wanted to grow up to be Sherlock Holmes.”
Belden nodded. “Yeah, and he keeps meticulous records. Call him, Holmes. See what he’d be willing to do for us.”
I reached for the phone, and Lars asked, “Why Agent Holmes?”
Belden stepped closer to me, probably meaning to listen in on the conversation. “Because he’s our unofficial ambassador to Mr. MacGruen.”
I picked up the phone and dialed. And Lars asked again, “Why?”
Belden spoke slowly, his voice taking on a note of strained note. “Because Mr. MacGruen likes him.”
Belden and I looked at each other, then at Lars. “Because,” I answered, “he wanted to grow up to be Sherlock Holmes.”
I pressed the phone against my ear and listened to the ringing. Then I heard Watson’s voice, suddenly and startlingly above me: “We have a new case, Holmes.”
I looked up. “Watson, I …” I waved my hand in a circle to indicate that I was in the middle of a case—and a phone call.
“This is important. Scharzky just stopped by.”
Lars opened his mouth—
“Scharzky,” Belden said to him, “is a frequent client.”
I tried to ignore them. “Watson, I’m—” I waved again and returned to listening for MacGruen to pick up.
“He asked for us specifically—and Supervisor Lunferd said he could have us.”
Belden, again to Lars: “They are the agents Scharzky normally works with.”
I hung up the phone. MacGruen wasn’t answering, and apparently Scharzky wouldn’t go away. “Who does he want us to do a check on now?”
Lars looked at Belden, who explained, “Scharzky usually hires us to do background checks on his prospective employees.”
Watson eyed the pair of them as he answered me. “This time, it’s on a man who wants to marry his daughter.”
I laid my hand on the phone, halfway to trying again to call. “All right, but why not start Monday morning? Why so urgent?”
“Because he thinks she might want to marry him.”
I shook my head and stood up. “Lars, Belden, you’re going to have to finish here. Call MacGruen, Belden; he’s a good egg.” I followed Watson out of the basement, with one last glance behind me—at Belden and Lars, looking at each other …