Jul 14 2013 6:30pm
A specially selected excerpt from Mystery Girl by David Gordon, a thriller about the dangers of marriage and a detective story about the unsolvable mysteries of love, art, and other people (available July 16, 2013).
When Sam Kornberg’s wife, Lala, walks out on him, he’s an unemployed used-book store clerk and failed experimental novelist with a broken heart. Desperate to win her back, he takes a job as assistant detective to the enigmatic Solar Lonsky, a private eye who might be an eccentric and morbid genius or just a morbidly obese madman.
It’s a simple tail job, following a beautiful and mysterious lady around L.A., but Sam soon finds himself helplessly falling for his quarry and hopelessly entangled in a murder case involving Satanists, succubi, underground filmmakers, Hollywood bigshots, Mexican shootouts, video-store geekery, and sexy doppelgangers from beyond the grave. A case that highlights the risks of hardcore reading and mourns the death of the novel—or perhaps just the decline of Western Civilization.
I became an assistant detective, and solved my first murder, right after my wife left me, when I went a little mad. Never as crazy as the master detective himself, of course; he was completely nuts. Certifiable with the papers to prove it. Madder than a shithouse rat. He was (and you’ll pardon the bad pun, but I’m a frustrated writer and we’re the worst, with our brittle, bitter brilliance now confined to the Scrabble board) mentally detective in every possible sense. And trust me, I know from crazy, being, as I admit right here from the outset, no poster child for emotional health myself.
But in truth, I knew I wasn’t really nuts, just angry and scared and lonely and so, so very sad. The disease wasn’t in my head, but in my heart. My heart was terribly sick. I could feel it carrying on in there all night: feverish, mumbling, tossing in its sleep, waking up in shivers from sweat-drenched nightmares, unable to keep anything down. I felt like an ambulance carting it around, siren moaning, expecting traffic to part and cops to clear my way. But there was no trauma center for me to come screeching up to. No winged nurses awaiting me in white. I just drove around in circles, wailing, Emergency, Emergency!
In the end, I diagnosed myself. The sickness I had was just life. And the only known cure for the malady of existence—although deeply tempting on certain endless white nights and empty black hole mornings—was too radical, too uncertain, too irrevocable to try until all other means had been exhausted.
I got his email on the fifth day, when I was getting a little desperate. The big therapy session was that afternoon, and I’d been on only two job interviews. They didn’t go well. I wanted to ask, in my follow-up email: Can’t we just forget this ever happened? Please delete. It had taken an enormous amount of effort merely to make myself presentable in the first place. I had to find a clean shirt and unwrinkled pants and do the buttons up right and tuck it in. I had to shave, which was awful. My hands shook from all the coffee, and I accidentally slashed my throat, but the hardest part was facing myself in the mirror. I’d lost weight, burning off my happy husband paunch in a marathon of distress, so I actually looked pretty trim, and my spouse-supervised haircut was top-notch, but there was something terribly wrong with my eyes. I couldn’t blame my interviewers for wanting me gone: these people are trained to give you a firm hand-shake and a straight look. But when they grasped my clammy, shaky fingers and gazed into my bloody blues, they saw something even I didn’t want to know.
So as I said, by day five, things were getting rough. I sat up, abruptly, at dawn. I didn’t sleep much during this period, or slept only in snatches, during which I had nightmares that were identical to my waking life: I dreamed that what was happening to me was actually happening, and woke up every hour or so, exhausted.
First I rose and checked my empty email. Next I made coffee. Then, exhausted already, I took a self-pity break on the couch, face down, nose in the crack between cushions, as if sniffing for lost change. What job did I (or she, really) think I could get? By training and nature, I was equipped to do nothing but lie thusly and think deep thoughts. I blamed my hardworking parents for encouraging me to obtain a useless, outrageously expensive, and still unpaid-for education best suited to a minor nineteenth-century aristocrat. I could read philosophy and discuss paintings. Not that I ever did, but I could, if I had to, in an emergency. I could charm elegant dinner parties with witty patter, if anyone ever invited me to one. I could articulate my misery with great precision. If only I had learned to cut hair, or cook, or fix something! The mailman startled me, and I jumped to my feet as a clutch of bills shot through the slot and splattered onto the floor. Rent. Power. Student loans. How much was left in our joint account anyway? Would Lala continue to pay her share? How much did this therapy cost? What was today’s date, anyway?
Spying on the mailman through the curtains, I entertained a brief reverie about his lot: strolling along, out in the air in all weather, with no one watching, making his simple rounds, then returning home to a well-earned, hearty meal served by a loving, buxom wife. How sweet, I mused, to walk around and get paid for it. Yet, as we know, there was something about the mail that drove men to slaughter. Maybe all that endless paper, piling up, like novels no one wanted. All that bad news. I sat back at my desk and rested my aching head on the keyboard.
That’s when I saw it, close up, alongside my nose, an email that had slipped quietly into my box. The search engine had ground up my résumé and spat back a paltry response, one “position” in the known world that I was theoretically qualified to assume. It said only “Private Detective Requires Assistance,” followed by a phone number. Assist? I could do that, I exulted. Anyone could. I called. It picked up after half a ring.
“Yeah?” the voice of an older woman asked.
“Good morning,” I said in my most chipper and business-ready tone. “I’m calling regarding the ad for an assistant.”
“Wrong number,” she said and hung up. I checked the number and tried again, figuring I’d misdialed. As I mentioned, my hands were a bit shaky. Again the phone was snatched up almost before I pressed the last button.
“Yeah?” It was the same woman.
“Hello, I’m sorry if this is the wrong number, but there’s an ad for a private investigator who needs an assistant.”
“Look, fella, I’m a busy woman, all right? I don’t know what you’re trying to pull but I ain’t got time for this.” I could hear other phones ringing in the background and a television’s blare.
“So you didn’t place the ad for a private investigator?”
“Private what?” she yelled over the din. “No. We don’t need no private investigator.”
“No!” I shouted back. “You’re the investigator. I want to be the assistant.”
“You want to be my assistant. Well you can start assisting me right now by shoving the phone up your own ass instead of waiting for me to come do it for you. What?” she shouted suddenly. “What? I can’t hear you. Come in here.” There was a moment of silence while I wondered whether to hang up. “Hold on,” she said, reluctantly, and then covered the phone. I heard a muffled exchange. Finally, someone else got on, a man this time.
“Yes,” he said. “I believe you’re calling to inquire about the position of assistant?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, throwing in the “sir” because this guy’s voice sounded a lot more refined than the lady’s had, not English exactly, but like someone who really knew English.
“Very good. I am interviewing this afternoon. Perhaps it would be convenient for you to come at four?”
“That would be great,” I said, and he gave me the address. He asked my name and I told him.
“Excellent, Mr. Kornberg. I’ll look forward to meeting you then. My name,” he said, “is Solar Lonsky.”
The address was in Koreatown. I found it without too much trouble. On a jumbled street of beaten old homes and newly renovated oddities, their once quaintly shingled walls now slathered with stucco and studded with satellite dishes, the squat bungalow I parked before was distinguished by an air of benign neglect. The white fence was peeling but the trees were old and shady. Their roots broke the curved concrete walk into chunks like thawing ice. On a deep porch, under the shadowing eaves, a diamond of yellowed glass was set in a dark wood door.
I waited until after I parked to put on my jacket and tie, since my wife took the car with working AC and it was getting hot. (Autumn in LA, season of fires and earthquakes and apocalyptic winds, growing only hotter as the real world cools.) I grabbed my leather briefcase, which contained my résumé, a protein bar, and a couple of books that I’d dropped in there to make it look full (Portrait of a Lady, Thief ’s Journal, and a volume of Proust). There was a special delivery copy of the New York Times on the walk, so I picked that up and rang the bell. After a moment a slot opened and a very small, very round Korean lady peered out.
“Hello,” she said in a thick accent.
“Good afternoon,” I said. I was planning to continue by saying I had an appointment with Mr. Lonsky, but she shut the peephole. Then she opened it again.
“Warren?” she asked.
“No, I’m not Warren. I’m Samuel. Sam really. Sam Kornberg.”
“You show warrant?”
“Oh, warrant,” I said. “I thought you said Warren. No, no warrant. I still don’t know what you mean.”
“Okay.” She smiled and shut the slot again. I checked the address to be sure I had the right house. Was this some kind of very formal, polite crack den? Then she was back.
“No, not Norman either. I’m Sam.”
“No.” She spoke slowly, for my benefit, as if explaining a simple fact. “You are Mormon.”
“A Mormon? No, I’m not a Mormon. Sorry. Jewish, I’m afraid.”
“Okay,” she said again, still smiling, and shut the slot. I was about ready to give up, but then I heard elaborate bolts shifting and locks being turned, and the door swung back with a sound like a draw- bridge being raised. She waved me inside, with that pretty underhand wave Asian women use, and then rebolted the locks behind me, hoisting a heavy wooden crossbar that she could barely lift into place.
The living room was done in middle period old lady, with plastic covers on the white couches and runners protecting the thick, spotless white carpets. White vertical blinds kept out the sun. There were three televisions, all on, two with baseball games, one with soccer. There were also three telephones on the coffee table. In a white upholstered armchair, commanding the view, sat a tiny old white lady, even tinier than the little Korean lady and far more gnarled. She wore red polyester slacks and a pink blouse. Her white hair had a pink tinge to it and she wore giant, round red sunglasses and had very red lips. She was smoking the longest, thinnest cigarette I’d ever seen, grasping it between two red-tipped claws, playing cards clutched in her other hand. The Korean lady sat on the couch and picked up a hand that had been resting facedown, eyeing her opponent suspiciously.
“You Sol’s friend?” the old white lady asked. She was the one from the phone.
“Well, I’m here to see Mr. Lonsky —”
“Solly!” she yelled, cutting me off. “Sol! Get out here! Sorry about Mrs. Moon,” she went on, addressing me again. “White men in suits make her nervous.”
“Me too,” I said, trying to smile agreeably, although I was starting to wonder about this whole setup. “They rarely bring good news.”
Then another white man in a suit emerged from the interior of the house. At first he was just a shadow, a looming presence in the dark hall, and the sonorous voice I recognized from the phone.
“Is the door fastened?”
The old lady rolled her eyes at Mrs. Moon and yelled, “Yeah, Solly, it’s shut.”
“I can see that, Mother,” the shadow boomed, like Moses on the mountain. “Is it made fast?”
“Jesus, yes, it’s locked for crying out loud.”
“Very well,” he said, and came into the light. He was, to put it mildly, enormous. He was hugely, extravagantly, preposterously obese, with fingers like hot dogs and cheeks like rosy balloons and swaying, trembling, juggling triple-G breasts that wrestled like puppies in his shirt as he walked. But he was not one of those people who should, if they were healthy, be average size. He was huge on every level, in every dimension. He was very tall, over six feet, with shoulders wider than the door, and another four inches of black-and- gray hair rising from his high, wide carapace of forehead. Each massive hand was like a whole Easter ham. His head alone must have weighed fifty pounds, archaic and regal, like an unearthed chunk of marble. He was very pale, with a sharp chieftain’s nose, a prominent, densely planted eyebrow ridge, thick, tender lips like slices of rare roast beef, and huge wet black eyes that blinked and floated like sharks in their bowl of a head before retreating behind their heavy lids. His ears were like conch shells, full of pink swirls and depths, and his neck was thicker and stronger than my leg. He was dressed in a cream-colored three-piece linen suit with pleated pants, a four-button jacket, a mauve shirt, a chocolate brown tie, and highly polished brown shoes. I was taken aback, but the shoes struck a plaintive note: they were pointy, bright, thin-soled, and delicate, and he moved toward me quickly, with surprising grace and lightness, as if instead of burdening him, his greatness uplifted, buoying him aloft, while my own spindly legs clung cravenly to the earth in their clunky boots.
“Mr. Kornberg, I presume,” he intoned.
“Mr. Lonsky, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I found this on the sidewalk.”
“Ah yes. The paper,” he said, tucking it under his arm and then taking my hand gently in his soft paw while looking me frankly in the eyes. Unlike the others, he didn’t flinch. He smiled. “I’m unable to retrieve it myself, you see. Allergies.”
Mrs. Lonsky snorted derisively at this but kept her eyes on her cards. She laid one down and Mrs. Moon drew it, impassively. Lonsky frowned.
“I see you’ve met my mother and our housekeeper. Let’s retire to my study for a chat. Tea, please, Mrs. Moon. I find green tea less nervous-making than coffee.”
Mrs. Moon smiled and started to stand, but the old lady waved her down. “Screw the tea. We’re playing here. Besides”—she looked up at me and winked—“Solly’s got an assistant now.” She started laughing richly, the long, tiny cigarette bouncing in her mouth. Mrs. Moon tittered behind her fan of cards. Lonsky gave them a dignified sneer.
“Follow me,” he said.
He led me down a hall full of old photos and into another room. Here there were floor-to-ceiling bookshelves crammed with old books and a huge leather-topped desk. I couldn’t look closely, but my scavenger’s eye caught a complete Freud, a complete Shakespeare, a complete Sherlock Holmes, a complete Rousseau’s Confessions, and all twenty volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. A completist. There was also a chessboard in mid-game, an upright piano stacked with sheet music, and a dusty violin, as well as assorted bones, rocks, animal skulls, small carved statues, and antique ceramic bowls. Solar sank into his chair, wide and deep like a leather throne. He went through the Times, pulled out a section and unfolded it, then folded it back again, revealing the crossword puzzle. He picked up a gold-and-onyx fountain pen.
“Time?” he asked me.
“Pardon? Oh”—I glanced at my watch—“a little after four.”
“Please be precise if you can.”
I looked at my watch again. Was this part of the interview? Had we started yet? I waited for the number to change.
“It is now exactly . . . 4:02.”
Solar began rapidly filling in the crossword puzzle, moving ceaselessly from left to right as if jotting down a grocery list. While he wrote, he spoke, without lifting his eyes from the page.
“So, you’d like to be a private investigator.”
“Yes, very much so,” I said, a little relieved now that the interview proper was under way, but still distracted by his writing. It looked as if he was doing all the across questions in order, one after the other. “I brought you a copy of my résumé.” I snapped open the briefcase and searched through the jumble.
“That won’t be necessary,” he said without looking up. “You’re from New Jersey. You attended a good college, probably in New York. You worked with books, perhaps in publishing, but more likely in a used bookshop, although business has fallen off. Someone close to you, a woman, works in the fashion industry. You’re married. But, I’m afraid, you’re currently having some difficulties in that area as well.”
I laughed nervously. I admit I was even a little frightened.
“How did you know all that? The Internet?”
He laughed, still scribbling away. Now he was filling in the down clues.
“I merely observed you, Mr. Kornberg. That you’re from the garden state I gathered from your accent. However, the more nasal features of the dialect have been smoothed over, indicating some advanced education. Also, the books in your briefcase are of a varied and refined nature, suggesting a much larger collection. I assume you grabbed them at random to fill the case?”
I nodded guiltily.
He went on: “Hence, you are clearly a serious reader and perhaps professionally involved with literature. But the books themselves are old, well-worn editions, and I observed too that you immediately noted some of the better items in my own collection, suggesting perhaps a used bookshop. You’re wearing a Dries Van Noten suit from last year’s fall collection. Although I wear only bespoke suits myself, residing outside the commercially available dimensions, I know that Mr. Van Noten is both an expensive and somewhat rarified designer, far too sophisticated a choice for an average bookish fellow to make without guidance. That indicates some rather esoteric knowledge of clothes. Nevertheless, it is last year’s and not a summer suit at all, which suggests you purchased it at a discount, perhaps at one of the private sales to which industry insiders are invited. Also, your watch is inexpensive, your shoes are unpolished, and the sunglasses in your shirt pocket are repaired with tape, all suggesting that you are frugal and not generally given to outlandish personal spending. That you are married is obvious from the ring. I assume therefore it was your wife who bought you the suit. But you missed a spot under your nose shaving this morning and there’s also a coffee stain on your tie, both things that a loving wife, especially one who favors Dries, would have most certainly noticed. Of course, it’s possible that your wife is simply out of town. But I regret to say that I believe the trouble to be more serious than that.”
“How can you tell?” I asked, trying for a casual smile.
“From your eyes,” he said. He slammed down the paper and pen. “Time!”
I blinked at him, in shock.
“Time,” he said again, louder. I looked at my watch. “4:05.”
“Not bad for a Friday,” he said, then pointed a heavy finger at me. “And you hesitated a bit on the timekeeping.”
He rose majestically, straightening his pleats. “Well, I’m satisfied, and if you are as well then I’d like you to start straight off. The case, which for reference purposes I call The Case of the Mystery Girl, is under way and mounting toward its crisis.” He stopped and stared at me. “Shouldn’t you be writing this down?”
“Oh, sorry,” I blurted, patting my pockets as if there might be a notebook in one of them. I hadn’t even realized I’d been hired. I found an old pen in the lining of my suit coat and, while Lonsky watched, wrote “Mystery Girl” on the back of my résumé. Satisfied, he went on.
“Her name is Ramona Doon. She resides at the Coconut Court Apartments on Spaulding. Number five. She should be back there by six. At that time of day, take Fountain. I want you to wait outside, follow her if she leaves, keep detailed notes, and report back to me in person once you are convinced that she is home safe for the night. Don’t worry about the hour.”
“Right,” I said, still a little shocked that I actually had the job, and not entirely sure that I wanted it.
“And please make sure you are not observed by the lady or anyone else.” He gazed down at me like a statue of a general on a horse. “This is important.”
“Right.” I nodded and wrote “NOT observed,” then underlined it. He nodded approvingly.
“Unfortunately the state of my health won’t allow me to take this in hand myself. Therefore I am taking the risk of trusting you instead. Trusting your bravery, your fidelity, and your discretion.”
“Is it your allergies?” I asked.
“What? Oh yes, among other things.” He gazed at me thoughtfully. “Perhaps it would be prudent for you to don a disguise.”
“Can you walk in heels? Speak any foreign tongues?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, at least try to keep your wits about you. Lives may depend on it.” Before I could take this in, he pulled a hundred dollar bill from his pocket and pressed it into my palm. “Take this as an advance, since you’re short of funds.” He steered me rapidly out of the room and down the hall, where his mother and Mrs. Moon were now side by side, poring over a long adding machine tape. “Don’t forget to keep track of your mileage,” Solar continued. “Mrs. Moon, please. My tea.”
She went to stand but Mrs. Lonsky stopped her.
“We’re busy, Sol. She’s helping me add up the day’s tally.”
Impatient, he leaned over them and ran his eyes along the tape. “Ten thousand six hundred and forty two,” he announced.
Mrs. Moon tapped a calculator and smiled.
“Wow,” I said, barely able to keep from bursting into applause. But Mrs. Lonsky scowled.
“Solar,” she said. “I need to speak to you alone in the kitchen.”
“In a moment, Mother,” Lonsky declared, turning to me. “Go, Kornberg, go. And do your best.”
“Sure,” I said. “But how did you do that trick?”
“Trick?” he asked.
“You know, with the numbers.” Lonsky smiled.
“Why, Kornberg,” he said, “it’s called addition.”
Copyright © 2013 David Gordon
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David Gordon was born in New York City. He attended Sarah Lawrence College and holds an MA in English and Comparative Literature and an MFA in Writing, both from Columbia University, and has worked in film, fashion, publishing, and pornography. His first novel, The Serialist, won the VCU/Cabell First Novel Award and was a finalist for an Edgar Award. His work has also appeared in The Paris Review, Purple, and Fence among other publications.