My Story A Day story is below my Deal Me In post.
My Deal Me In short story reading challenge turned up a diamond this week, which means I read a fairy tale (or folk tale). I went, as I so often do, to one of Andrew Lang’s many-colored fairy tale collections.
This one was:
The Fox and the Lapp
This was a mash-up of trickster stories and one of those how-the-this-got-its-that stories. The main character is a tricksy fox, who gets what he wants by exploiting the weaknesses of others, whether that weakness is greed or generosity.
But I did look up Lapland because, ignorant American that I am, I didn’t know where it was, although the internal evidence of the story told me it’s in the north, with snow, snowshoes, ice, and reindeer. For the benefit of other ignorant Americans: Lapland is a region of Finland.
Our Story A Day prompt today is Never Give Your Real Name, which we were to use as the first line of our story. To my surprise, I ended up writing a Continental Op story, with apologies to Dashiell Hammett.
Never tell anyone your real name. That’s the first rule of the Continental Operatives. That way, if somebody from an operation recognizes you someplace you shouldn’t be during an operation, or somebody from a prior operation recognizes you later, you can say, “That ain’t me,” and really sell it, since it’s true.
Not that truth is always an easy sale. Sometimes, it’s harder to put over than a lie. People say they want the truth, but it’s the lie they long for.
We don’t do divorce work, but sometimes it just falls out that way.
Like the time The Old Man sent me to Louisville.
The client was a handsome old dame, in her forties, but well-kept and well-groomed and well-dressed, from one of the old families. We met in her house, actually inside Cherokee Park. It wouldn’t qualify as a mansion, but it looked like it planned to be one, as soon as it grew up and came into its trust fund.
A black woman in a black dress was waiting for me on the rear veranda, and showed me down a couple of halls and into the library.
The client rose, shook my hand, motioned for me to sit in an overstuffed leather chair, ordered me the drink of my choice, and resumed her seat behind a polished mahogany desk. She was still as she spoke, except that she held a lace handkerchief and worked it in her right hand. She never gave that handkerchief a rest, the whole of our interview.
“Arthur is twelve years my junior,” she said, emphasizing the is with a lift of her chin, “but that never made a difference to him. Neither did my money. Arthur was raised with money.” She waved a hand. “None of this was new to him. He wasn’t impressed. I was raised with money, and I know what it means to be at ease with it. Arthur was at ease.”
So’s your maid, I thought, but I didn’t say it out loud.
The maid brought my drink and left with a soft, “Yes, ma’am,” in response to the client’s order that we not be disturbed.
“Arthur has gone missing,” the client said, “along with a briefcase filled with jewelry and cash he was taking to deposit in our strongbox at the bank on Market. His car was abandoned on a side street behind Churchill Downs. I filed a missing persons report, but the police say I should file a report of theft! Theft! As if Arthur would abscond with a handful of banknotes and baubles!”
She forgot to say, “And a babe,” so I added it in the privacy of my own head.
“I want you to find him,” she said. “I can’t believe he’s dead. I would feel it,” she laid the hand so busy with her handkerchief over the diamond brooch pinned to her dress, “here.”
She had been up all night, gathering photographs, writing out a description, writing pages about his likes and dislikes, his habits and preferences. She handed me a short stack of cream-colored paper covered in black ink, the expensive handwriting shaky on some words, but mostly cool and ladylike.
By the time we shook hands and I left, we had agreed on a time line for my reports, and the lace handkerchief was in shreds.
Turns out, we were both right.
I began by checking public transportation out of town, although it was possible he had a second car she didn’t know about, or that the babe had one. He hadn’t left town by bus, train, commercial airline, or private plane.
Then I checked the morgue. Then the hospitals. Then the clinics.
By then, the client’s conviction that Arthur hadn’t abandoned her had infected me and worked into my bloodstream. I started checking the soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
I found him at the third one I tried. He was sitting at a long table, laughing with a pretty young woman in somebody luckier’s cast-off dress, the suit he had gone missing in clean but the worse for wear.
I sat down next to him.
“How are you, Arthur? Your wife sent me.”
He looked at me blankly, his expression pleasant but puzzled. “Arthur? Wife?”
I took him home and collected my fee.
The client wrote the agency a letter on the anniversary of the case–they do that, sometimes. The Old Man gave it to me.
The best doctors money could buy had dug into Arthur’s head and unearthed what happened: He had planned to run off with a flashy babe, but she had double-crossed him, raised a knot on the back of his head with a gun-butt, and taken off with the loot. They never found her or any of the goods, so they figure she crossed into Canada and maybe parts unknown. Maybe somebody she had a yen for raised a knot on the back of her head. The knot on Arthur’s head made him forget who he was, even his name. The doctors helped him remember, but they didn’t make him forget that pretty young woman at the soup kitchen, who he said was his soul-mate.
Divorce ensued, with a small but, under the circumstances, generous settlement of money on the faithless Arthur so he could start a new life in a lower class. It was the last paragraph of the letter that got me.
I’m convinced Arthur doesn’t actually remember me or our life together, that he only knows what he’s been told by the doctors and by me. In his kindness, he would be willing to return to a life more strange to him than the one into which he fell when his skull was cracked and his mind was injured. His love for me, which no injury could ever injure, would inspire him to do that. But I cannot, shall not, will
not force him to do that. He must be free–legally and financially–to live his new life with his new love.
I crumpled the letter and tossed it into the wastebasket next to my desk.
OMG, how I love the internet! I tracked down what may be the most unlikely tribute ever made:
MY PROMPT FOR TODAY: Never give your real name