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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

E.E. Williams: The Dreary Detective

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Art by Michael D. Davis © 2024

THE DREARY DETECTIVE

BY E. E. WILLIAMS

 

It started to rain for the third time that morning. Jackson Horn stared out the window at the gray titanium clouds, and the rain streaking the glass. It was a dreary start to a dreary day, in a dreary week, in a dreary month, and, if Horn was being completely honest, a dreary existence.

His last job had been catching a tech mogul’s wife in flagrante delicto with her tennis instructor, a cliché in what had become a lifetime of clichés. Horn had tracked her for three weeks and eventually provided the tech guy with a list of flagrante hotel rooms, inns, apartments, and tavern restrooms, as well as delicto photos, audio files of phone calls, and transcripts of the conversations to which he’d listened in on with a directional mic.

Presented with the evidence of his wife’s infidelity the mogul grew furious. With Horn. Refused to pay the remainder of Horn’s fee. Told him he could sue. Horn could, of course. He had a contract. Signatures and fine print and everything. Ironclad. But the mogul’s pockets were deeper than Horn’s. Much deeper. So, one hundred twenty hours of wading through the muck of humanity disappeared down the drain.

Thirty years ago, this wasn’t the way Horn had seen his life going. He’d just mustered out of the Army and wanted nothing more than to be a famous private eye, like the ones in novels and movies. Philip Marlowe. Mike Hammer. Jake Gittes. There would be book deals about his cases. Movie offers.

That was the plan.

Then.

Now, here he was, trailing adulterers through back alleys, bedbug hotel rooms and sleazy bars that stank of booze and desperation.

That’s who Jackson Horn was when someone rapped on his office door, the one with JACKSON HORN stenciled on the pebbled glass. Jackson Horn wasn’t his real name, but at the time he’d started being a “Private Detective,” as it read under his name, he thought it had a sexy ring to it.

The knock tugged at Horn’s reverie but didn’t pull him completely out. Fat raindrops slithered down the window, dividing once, twice, three times and branching crazily left and right. It was hypnotic. Each tributary was a different path Horn’s life could have taken. This branch, he was a doctor. That one, a lawyer. That one? Maybe an investment banker making million-dollar deals.

A second more insistent thump on the door finally jerked Horn out of his stupor.

“Come in,” he said in a voice loud enough to be heard out in the hallway.

There was a moment’s hesitation before the knocker stepped into the office. He was in his early thirties, dressed in black jeans, a soft blue Orvis t-shirt and blood red Nike sneakers. He had one of those local TV weatherman faces: Not handsome, not ugly, but vaguely recognizable in a bland sort of way.

Horn stood and offered his hand. The young man took it and squeezed, somewhat harder than he should have. Nerves, thought Horn. Not uncommon when hiring a private detective.

“Erik Thornton,” the young man said by way of introduction.

“Jackson Horn. How can I help you, Mr. Thornton?”

“Please, Erik. With a K,” he said, glancing around the chaotic mess of an office, where precariously leaning towers of paperback mystery novels were stacked in various corners of the cramped room and sheaths of crumpled notes and wrinkled correspondence appeared to be vomited up by Horn’s desk.

Horn thought he detected a slight downturn at the corners of the young man’s mouth, but it was there and gone in an instant replaced by an easy smile.

“Okay, Erik with a K. Same question. How can I help you?”

Horn was expecting the usual. I think my wife is cheating on me … I need you to follow my girlfriend … I have to blah, blah, blah. Blah, blah-blah, blah-blah. The script rarely changed.

But Erik with a K surprised him.

“I’m looking for my father,” he said.

Gesturing for Thornton to take the chair, Horn opened a notebook, clicked open a pen and asked, “Your dad? He’s missing?”

Thornton shrugged and said, “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“You don’t know if he’s missing?”

Thornton’s lips thinned as he sought the right words.

“I … I never knew him. He abandoned my mother before I was born. So, I really can’t say he’s missing missing, but, you know, maybe. Could be he’s missing from wherever he is now.”

Horn stared at Thornton, wondering if the man was pulling his leg.

“I’m not really putting this very well,” Thornton said. “As I say, I never knew my dad. I don’t even know his name.”

“Your mother never told you his name?”

“No.”

Thornton spat the word like it was vinegar on his tongue.

Wind continued to whip rain against the window, and something tickled the back of Horn’s brain. There was something familiar about Erik with a K, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

“Do we know one another, Erik?”

Thornton gave Horn a dead-eyed stare and said, “No.”

“Right … so, you don’t know your father’s name. How about the year he left your mom?”

“I’m thirty-three. Figure it out.”

Thornton’s tone had taken a sudden left turn. He’d started off pleasantly enough if a little goofy. Now his voice had an edge sharp enough to slice through Horn’s desk.

“Sure,” Horn said. “Thirty-three years ago, then. Where were you born? I can check birth records, maybe get your father’s name from that. Use it as a starting point.”

“Don’t know.”

“You don’t know where you were born?”

“We moved around a lot, my mother and I. She didn’t offer up a lot of details about my … background.”

Horn sighed.

“Let’s come at this a different way,” he said. “What was your mother’s name?”

“Greta.”

“Greta Thornton …”

“Michaels,” Thornton said, interrupting. “Greta Michaels.”

“And your last name is Thornton? Why?”

“Because I didn’t want to keep her name one minute longer than I had to,” Thornton said, his voice rising.

Well, this is definitely off script, thought Horn. “If I may, why not?”

“Because she was a crazy freaking bitch, is why. Because she was a drunk. Because … because of this.”

Thornton yanked aside the collar of his shirt to reveal puckered rounds of white scar tissue. Horn’s gut clenched.

“Cigarette burns,” Thornton said.

 “Why?” Horn asked. “Why would your mother do …?”

“You’re really not much of a detective, are you?” Thornton said with a sneer.

Bewildered, Horn said, “Look, Mr. Thornton, I’m not sure where this sudden hostility is coming from, but …”

Thornton’s face purpled with rage.

“You don’t know where this hostility is coming from? Let me tell you. It’s coming from the fact my mother was so destroyed when my father abandoned her, that he threw her away like yesterday’s garbage, it broke her. She spent the rest of her life taking it out on me.”

Thornton rocketed out of his chair and paced the room. What was it that made him so familiar, Horn wondered. The piercing gray eyes? The nose slightly too large for his face?

Then it hit him, a sucker punch to the jaw.

“I wasn’t truthful with you,” Thornton said, turning to confront Horn.

Horn tried to say something. Anything. His mouth opened and closed but the words stuck in his throat. A line of sweat beaded across his forehead.

“My mother did tell me my father’s name,” Thornton said. “His real name.”

Like magic, a gun appeared in Thornton’s hand. It was small and compact, yet for Horn the barrel yawned as wide and black as a mountain tunnel.

“It was James Wilson,” Thornton said. “Jimmy Wilson back then. He picked my mother up in a bar. Took her back to her apartment. Left the next morning before she woke up. Put fifty dollars on the nightstand. She never saw him again and never ever got over that he thought she was no better than a cheap whore. It sent her down a very dark alley she never found her way out of. I blame him for that and everything that came after.”

The gun jumped in Thornton’s hand, and Horn suddenly found himself slammed onto the floor, flat on his back. There was a burning sensation in his chest and then a searing pain that grew with each passing second until it consumed his entire body. He tried to grab a breath but there was no air.

“When you get to hell,” Thornton said, “say hello to mom. Don’t bother telling her I’m sorry for cutting her throat. Because I’m not. Goodbye … Jimmy.”

Then Erik with a K was gone. As the office door creaked shut, memories flooded back to Horn. Lawton, Oklahoma. Fort Sill. A pretty brunette at Rooster’s bar, drinking alone. Lovely gray eyes. Easy, ruby-lipped smile. Nose just slightly too large for her face. Greta. Greta was her name.

Horn felt something liquid and warm trickle down his ribs and begin to pool beneath him. Blood. His blood.

Greta, he mouthed silently. Erik.

As the light dimmed around him, Horn’s eyes shifted upwards to the window where rivulets of rain still branched crazily left and right. Left and right. Left and …

THE END





E. E. Williams is a former journalist who worked at some of the country’s largest and best newspapers, including the New York Daily News, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Fresno Bee. At his last two newspapers—The Muncie Star Press and Cherry Hill Courier Post—he was both Executive Editor and General Manager.

 During his 43-year career, he won numerous national and regional awards for his writing and editing. His first two Noah Greene mystery novels were published by a small North Carolina independent publisher that has since gone out of business. (Not his fault, we don’t think.) The third book in the series was published on the Amazon Kindle platform.




If Charles Addams, Edgar Allan Poe, and Willy Wonka sired a bastard child it would be the fat asthmatic by the name of Michael D. Davis. He has been called warped by dear friends and a freak by passing strangers. Michael started drawing cartoons when he was ten, and his skill has improved with his humor, which isn’t saying much. He is for the most part self-taught, only ever crediting the help of one great high school art teacher. His art has been shown at his local library for multiple years only during October due to its macabre nature. If you want to see more of Michael’s strange, odd, weird, cartoons you can follow him on Instagram at mad_hatters_mania.

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