Today is my uncle Henry Wadsworth Cleage’s birthday. He was born on March 22, 1916 in Detroit Michigan. If he had not died on June 15, 1996, he would have been 97 today. In honor of his birthday I decided to run another one of his short stories. He wrote it in March of 1947 and sent it out to an agency but it wasn’t published. He also wrote a longer and slightly different version of this story. There was, however, no mention of a camera and that is the prompt for this weeks Sepia Saturday.
By Henry Cleage
“Rural Detective Agency routes Thief” was in great big letters and underneath was the picture of the old man Lucas’s cat wearing the false teeth. Then there was a little article about Sam and me. I was humiliated. I jammed the magazine in my pocket and went up to the office. The office is over the drugstore.
I opened the door and started towards my desk. I was almost there when I fell over the tripod. It was sulking in the shadows the better to destroy me. I staggered on to the desk and sat there trying to organize myself.
Finally my mind was made up. Whoever heard of a detective agency with a darkroom? I would just have to force Sam to stop fooling with them cameras and stick to business. I couldn’t stand the strain and the indignity any longer. It was getting so bad I was getting a fixation about cameras. I could smell one a block away, and the smell didn’t do my blood pressure any good either. After all, who was running the joint anyway? I was in a state when Sam finally wandered in.
“Hello Dan.”. he said. He was loaded down with a camera almost as big as he was. He’s just about five foot six himself but he’s all energy and foolishness. Oh, he’s a good boy all right. I don’t mean to say that he ain’t been a big help and all that, but after… Just because he was the one who got us our license and set up the office don’t mean he can run around with a camera all the time. Besides it was only because he happened to know Sidney Jones’s daughter in the university where he was taking some fool course in photography that he was able to get the license.
But take that university business. Ain’t that just like him? If I wanted to be a photographer I would just grab a camera and start snapping pictures. But he’s got to go at it the hard way. He’s got a stubborn streak a mile wide. If he wants anything, he’ll bust hell wide open to get it. I didn’t even speak to him when he walks in. He wanders around awhile tring not to get in my way, but I’m right there looking him dead in the eye.
At last I speak. “Sam”, I says, “What do you think is wrong with the business?”
“Geez” answers Sam “I think it’s wonderful.”
Now, ain’t he a ninny? “Wonderful?” I gasp. “How can you say that when we ain’t had no business since old man Lucas lost his false teeth?”
”I don’t think we can expect a great volume of business, ever.” Says Sam. “That’s why I’m developing a sideline. With photography and our detective business, we ought to do alright.”
“How come we can’t expect a lot of business?” I says, stung to the quick by this fresh evidence of unamericanism.
“Why, the town is too small.” Says Sam innocently, his wide eyes even wider.
“Well”, I says “I think we can do more business if a certain one of us would tend to business and let our hobbies go.”
Sam seemed shocked. “But, I think my camera work can be a help in the business.” he said.
Ain’t he a ninny though?
“Did the camera help in the Lucas False Teeth Case?” I roared.
“The picture I got of the cat wearing the teeth did.” Replied Sam. “We sold it to the magazine for a hundred bucks.”
“Did the camera help in the Lucas False Teeth Case?” I repeated.
“I found the teeth.” Sam had the indecency to say.
“Did the camera find the teeth?” I scored.
“No.” Sam admitted.
I rose to my full six feet and glared down at Sam, sitting at his desk. “Then admit you are wasting time with them gadgets.”
For a minute I thought I had him, but he’s stubborn. He looked pained for a minute and then scratched his head. He don’t like to argue. That’s what I was counting on.
“I don’t think the camera has had a fair test.” He says.
I am almost exasperated but just then the phone rings and I grab it. It’s old man Jones’ daughter herself. She wants an appointment right away. She gets it.
“I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do.” I says, turning back to Sam. “I want to be fair about this thing so we’ll make a bargain.” I look at him like I’m giving him the chance of a lifetime. “That is if you got the nerve, the faith of your convictions.”
“What is it?” asks Sam.
“If you can use your camera in some legitimate way in our next case, I’ll keep my mouth shut. If you can’t, you’ll get down to business and forget it.”
Sam starts to protest but I come in fast.
“Oh?” I says “Welching?” I shake my head disgustedly. “Just a kid who don’t want to give up his toys.”
This gets Sam where he lives. He hates to be called a kid. That’s what I counted on.
“All right.” He says, his face tight and confused, “I’ll go along with you.”
I got him, I got him, I got him! Geez, what a sucker. I don’t know why, but I can get away with anything on him. With other guys, he is as shrewd as the next one, but with me, he is putty.
Things are still pretty tense in the office that evening when Miss Jones comes in. She is a looker all right. A tall well stacked dame with plenty of everything that makes the world go around.
When she sees Sam, she almost picks him up and puts him in her lap. It seems they were regular old buddies at school. Sam seems pretty fond of her too. They act like two old college buddies. Disgustin’.
“How is the demon photographer?” she hollers, laughing like mad.
“How’s the philosopher?” says Sam, grinning like an ape.
They kid each other around like two guys. I look at this chick again. It’s amazing. Usually a big shot chick with as much on the ball as this one, is got a lot of agony and such. You know what I mean. I figure this chick must be a problem to someone. I can imagine her pulling almost as many silly ones as Sam. I clear my throat and bring the meeting to order.
She’s really got a problem. It seems that in her studies at school she comes across something pretty interesting in the way of the law of averages. And being the girl she is, she shoots right out to Whitey’s Roadhouse to see if the books are right. They ain’t. One thing follows another and before all is said and done, she gives an I.O.U. Now, for some peculiar reason, Whitey don’t want to give her back the I.O.U. even for the money.
“Well”, I says, “Why worry?” This chick must have a screw loose, I think to myself. I would take the money and call it a good deal.
“Her father is running for mayor on the reform ticket.” Says Sam.
“What’s that got to do with it?” I shouts, very much put out by Sam’s habit of bringing up non-essentials.
“Petey Grace, the mayor’s handyman called me today and advised me to see that daddy did not choose to run or he would publish a Photostat of the I.O.U. in the paper.” She says.
That Sam, I think to myself. Always showing off. How in the world does he think we can get an I.O.U. if the guy don’t want to give it? Besides, that Whitey bunch ain’t no boys to get too gay with. And he’s in with the mayor too. That’s a hard combination to beat. It ain’t like finding old man Lucas’s false teeth.
I’m just on the verge of telling her that we are pretty well tied up, when I get a flash of genius. This is just the case for showing Sam the folly of his ways. It’s got to be strictly hush-hush, see. The last thing you could use in a case like this is a camera. I turn back to Jones with a suave smile.
“The way I see it”, I says, “the whole thing has got to be strictly hush-hush.”
“Definitely.” Says Jones, tossing her blond curls with a certain twist of her shoulders.
“No pictures or nothing.” I insist.
“Heavens no.”, replies Jones. “That would discredit the reform ticket.”
“I’ll take care of it.” I say, standing up and bowing like they do in the movies when the interview is over.
Sam is pretty quiet after Jones leaves. I am pretty quiet too. She carries quite a thrust, that girl does.
“Dan.” Says Sam.
“That bargain,” he says.
“Of course we can’t use this case as a test.”
“And why not?” I come back indignant.
“It ain’t a normal case.” Says Sam.
“There ain’t no such thing as a normal case.” I says.
“The bargain is unfair anyway.” Says Sam.
“Oh!” I says. “Baby wants to back down.”
Sam stalks out of the door. I am dancing with glee, myself. Sam knows he is licked. He is so beat he walks out with only one camera, that little one with the light on it. How can I lose? It’s open and shut. I look around at all the photo junk Sam will have to cart out of here. Why with all that stuff out, I can get a bigger desk. One like them big shots got. Then I can get my bluff in on clients when they come in.
The twelfth hour found me doggedly making my way to Whitey’s Roadhouse. It’s on Latham Road, about ten miles north of town. Ordinarily I would have made it in half an hour. Indeed in even less! The fact is, the gas pedal on my 1936 Ford sticks, sometimes up and sometimes down. Tonight it sticks up and so instead of traveling approximately 80 miles per hour, as I sometimes do, I was traveling ten miles an hour as I sometimes do.
When I finally reached the club, it was all dark. I looked at my watch. Two thirty AM! I kicked the gas pedal so it would know just who was to blame for my unseemly arrival. The pedal, in perverse retaliation, became unstuck at that precise moment and the car, roaring like a lion, charged headlong into a large black limousine then leaving the driveway and pummeled it to a standstill. So authoritatively did my car get in it’s licks that the limousine backed up in hurried confusion and swooshed off into the darkness. But not before I caught a glimpse of Petey and the mayor.
Strange, I said to myself as I pried my ribs from around the knob on my steering wheel. I drove on to the door.
When I walked in the door, I realized that I had taken quite a beating from that steering knob, particularly that spot on my chest where that knob had hit. I stopped a moment in the dark to gingerly touch the bruise.
Immediately a short jug-headed individual who was looming out of the darkness skidded to a halt with his hands waving wildly in the air.
“Don’t shoot, boss!” he said. “The joint’s yours.”
I tried to gather my fumbling wits together but I didn’t do so good. “Turn around,” I growled “and take me to Whitey.” I kept my hand on my chest because I knew he thought I had a gun.
So there we go, across the lobby and down a very discouraging hallway. It felt like I was getting in deeper and deeper with every step. I was in such a state, I wished I could see old Sam, cameras and all. I want him so bad that for a minute I figure I can smell them cameras, even out here. They don’t smell half bad now, but I had to stop dreaming ‘cause jughead stops in front of the last door. I tell him to knock. Then I hear voices inside.
“Did you hear that?” says the first.
“Who, me?” asks the second.
Finally the obscenities quieted and the second voice was prevailed upon to see to the knocking. A guy who looks like the brother of the guy I am trailing opens the door and looks at my boy with considerable disgust.
“What the hell you knocking f…” then he sees the shape of things and waves the air with his hands too.
“A stick up!” grated Whitey who was cowering behind his desk in amazement. To him, the whole thing was like the tail wagging the rat. But a rat is fast.
I’m having myself a time. I got the corners of my mouth turned down like a regular tough guy and I’m looking them over through narrowed eyes. And then I hear the noise. It’ just a little creak but I know it’s the door behind me. Quick as a wink, I wheel towards the door, but I don’t see a thing. Then I turn quick to keep whitey under control, but I am too late. Whitey’s hand darts to the switch on the desk lamp, turns it off and continues on towards my head. Somehow or other there is a gun in it when it point at my head.
Undignified as I must have looked I dived for the back of the desk and the protection it would give me. The crash of the gun seemed to unhinge all the brains that I have. Light and more light seemed to blast the room with almost as much authority as the noise of the gun. It was all so unheard of, that the last I remember is the smell of that photo junk and that light.
The mumble of voices welcomed me back amongst the living. I looked about wildly. I was in my room and Sam was giving orders to the landlady. It seemed he wanted a bucket of hot water and a tub of ice cubes.
“Oh no you don’t.” I shouted hysterically.
Sam dashed over to the bed and looked at me professionally. He had a certain air about him and I didn’t like it.
“What happened?” I asked suspiciously.
“Well,” said Sam “after you dived into the desk and knocked yourself out, they gave me the I.O.U.”
“Yeah!” I hollered, scared that he would see how happy I was, but everything was so mellow. We got the note and Sam has got to give up the camera. Everything is breaking my way. “Where did they find you?” I ask, not that I give a darn but just to make conversation.
“I was there.” Says Sam.
A horrible feeling comes over me.
“If it wasn’t for the picture, we wouldn’t have got it.” Sam is swaggering, even though standing still.” I followed you in there and when Whitey shoots you through the hat, I get a picture. After you knock yourself out, he finds out you ain’t out to hijack the joint, so he is glad to forget the whole thing if I give him my roll of film.”
Sam takes out a cigarette and lights it, all the time looking at me like an owl. “Anything I can do for you before I go?” he says. “I got to develop some pictures.”
I wave him out. I ain’t got the heart to speak.