Baker Whitefield is a fictional private detective that I created to showcase my writing and black and white photography. Below are his journal entries from "A World in Decay."
ABOUT BAKER WHITEFIELD
Broken old men told me about the glory of the shipyards when I was a boy. But all that remained was rust and rubble. These same old men, once strong like the cranes they worked, suffered the indignity of age. Their minds would succumb to doddery. One day, they’d return to the earth just like the ore that was purified, then corrupted by time.
Oh, to be a spectator! But the world I was born into was too small. I gazed at something bigger and it took me across the sea.
New York: The capital city of decay. The ancient cities of Europe are beloved and treasured, but in the New World, things that were once beautiful are left to rot.
And the people! My, the people. Like eight million lone wolves penned in the same cage. They gnaw at each other and themselves. They’re skittish yet vicious. Angry but afraid. Helpless because they’re all fighting for the same scraps from too small a table. This was my kind of place.
I hung a shingle. Investigations. The only way to see the rot from the inside. And they let me right in. This is my story.
The police had missed the point. It was a calling card, not a motive. They had misread it, too. The carvings said “30” and “69,” not “59.” The age of the victims was irrelevant: an unrelated coincidence. He wanted to be found.
I watched him with a morbid curiousity; both of us hiding in plain sight. He was a squirrelly gentleman. Almost frail. His arms were long and skeletal and he had flab at the elbow that makes a man look sinful. He stayed out all night, prowling and marauding, returning only after the morning sun washed away his daily confession with diffused light.
The stairs were crumbling; their concrete mashed by salt, time and oversized bodies plodding and sitting idle. A familiar scene with an unmistakable dinge. Old New York.
I knew what to expect inside the doors. A floor made of small black-and-white hexagonal tiles. Some missing, most chipped and all covered with filth. Each of the building’s chambers was less predictable. The way people conduct themselves in the light rarely tells the truth about their darkness.
I was enquiring about a man who was soulless, or so I had been told. I took a step toward the door. Then I stepped out of the light.
Eleanor Delgado: person of enquiry. I sat across the street from the parlour that she visited every day, watching from the window of some abominable restaurant selling rubbish swine to the poor and foolish. A two metre plasticine hog kept sentry beside me, staring out the same window. His eyes were filled with mania and lust.
I spotted Eleanor half way down the boulevard. She toted a blue vinyl handbag. In an hour, she’d leave with a black patent clutch. My neighbor paid her no mind.
It was cold. I stepped over the huddled bodies wrapped in fleece and corrugated paper. Inside, it was like a furnace. More hell-like than heaven in either case. The street lamps cast shadows through the trees and stained glass, and craggy, shadowy arms reached across the atrium, dancing randomly and violently.
A few candles flickered along the periphery, snuffed out by the cold air rushing through the door. The heat and the darkness were stifling. I scanned the room searching for another soul to share the irony with, but it was an empty place, like a barren outpost.
It was a token gesture. The wire had been so twisted with time that it served only as a reminder: Stay away from here. The locals knew this. The man whose blood had dried on the ground a few metres from the fence had not. I’d spend my life here if I wasn’t so conspicuous. What a magnificent den of sin and corruption! But I readied my satchel for the trip home, preparing my notes. She knew her husband was dead and she knew the type of “business” that he could only attend to south of where the cartographer’s pencil carved a line of civility. Something told me she’d take pleasure in knowing that he was despatched by the weaker sex.
It was dreadfully quiet; an emptiness, like those fleeting moments before sleep overtakes you. The world wanted to be silent. I feared my heart would stop out of embarrassment for making such a racket. In the distance, I saw beautiful flashes: lightning without thunder. An impossibility, of course, but just far enough away that the sound morphed into a sensation rather than a familiar rumble. I felt small.
He insisted on shuttling me. It was intended as a show of power, but I thought it a festival of amusements: a metamorphosis of man and machine. Dry, leathery skin with an unwashable dinge of smoke. A patina of ash. The suffocating thought that one day the innards would seize, then die. I snickered inside, knowing that I was in the driver's seat. He would seethe if he could read my mind.
I wondered what the primitives had thought when the sky drooped like old breasts. Maybe they celebrated. Rain is a blessing. A query nagged at me, though: Push onward or return to the office for a mac? I chose the latter. Better to be fashionably late than sopping. She seemed like a penthouse type of client, after all.
Kind men broadcast a message; you can decode it by looking through their eyes. It's a tell. You are not like me. When I walk away his smile will fade in small drops and washes. I can feel his relief; eyes staring, piercing through my back like a knife.
A ten-action bi-pedal stood like a monument at the landing. Its rubber had dried and rotted and fused itself to the dank cement. The undercarriage of a home is a place to stow the unmentionables that human frailty keeps us from discarding; a graveyard of abandoned hopes and ambitions. Somewhere, probably in a water-stained banker's box, I would find evidence of a transaction. Maybe a few other treasures would turn up along the way.
The crabs tugged at her lip, letting go only to grapple with brazen seabirds. Dunes are dangerous places. I wondered how many vagrants had gone missing, swallowed by devil's stovepipes over the decades. Here, then gone. Disappeared until they were unearthed by a storm, or maybe just entombed in sand forever. But this was not an accidental death. The lacerations on her body were deep and brutal. He was getting as brazen as the birds; impressive for an old timer.
The pavers receded like a wave from where I stood. A caller might dismiss it as a path to nowhere or maybe the eccentricities of a queer old man, but he didn't receive any callers and the path did lead to something. I stood on a pitch of leaves mixed into pack rock and clay. I knew what laid beneath me, but I wasn't certain who.
The sky left no trace of the carnage that preceded me. The air was stifling; unbearably hot and wet. Pools of water sizzled on the asphalt. The familiar smell of dirt and concrete hung in the air. I should have been contented by my new business, but I peeved at the thought of having to launder my suit. I plodded back to my office like a sopping dog rolled in a vinyl sheet. Bloody August.
Stairs are the arteries of a building. The realtor thought I was mad when I inspected these flights, well-kept for a century. I didn't care much about the flat. This marble silo told me everything worth knowing.
He looked pathetic wrapped up in his trench. The sopping canvas was heavy like a straight jacket. Snowflakes landed on us both, beautiful for a fleeting second, then absorbed into the fabric like an exotic insect that dazzles in the moments before it stings. I motored forward, fueled by a stale biscuit and resentment. There are better ways to spend a Sunday, though I couldn't think of any in the moment.
The wooden bastards mocked me. This pursuit would be fruitless unless I found higher ground. Even then, it would be a challenge. It's simple for a man to camouflage himself in a crowd of his own people. Simpler still when he's unaware that he's being pursued. That's the irony of it. A bean tumbling down a pile is easy enough to spy. But there was no tumbling or running or pushing, just a hill of beans.
The odds and mechanics of a scuffle change radically with each participant. A man trades blows with another. Add a partner and you risk restraint and uncontested battery. The risk is greater with a third man, but the mechanics are similar. A quartet changes the calculus fundamentally; death by hemorrhage is likely. Four men will stomp another like children crushing a dandelion. I circled behind them to watch from the shadows. This was going to be a regrettable affair.
I had seen tables and boudoirs near death, then resuscitated like Lazarus with some spectacular elixir of oils. This earthly magic was the closest thing to religion that I had found. A carpenter working miracles with his hands. But no man could drive the sin from this place. The rotted old door had been sealed for decades. It detoured young and old fools alike; sent them stumbling to the back where they were out of sight and out of mind.
I stared at her sullen, sleeping face and contemplated. Assigning motive to human actions is a curious activity. Did this vandal hate women? Did he fear her judgmental eyes? Or was he simply a young artist making some kind of half-reasoned statement? I concluded the latter and set about my way. There were more important things to be seen to.
The dog stood at attention, unmoving, like cast iron. I felt uneasy. A lucid dream, perhaps? Or maybe I had stroked among the canvases in an art gallery and these were the last fleeting moments of cranial activity. The mutt bolted after a rodent and I pressed forward, forgetting my daydream.
I was a boy when my mother made me her companion on an Italian holiday. I remember suffering the pains of growth in my legs and crying each night from the exertion. I was let on my own for an afternoon and I found an ancient bridge, steep and stoned. I told myself lies when I saw it: The incline was too great and my legs were too pained to cross. But it was fear that paralyzed me. I was afraid because I couldn't see beyond the steep angle, and I returned to our villa carrying a shame that I've used for strength ever since.
People relish the tragedy of others; they turn it into an exercise of self importance, or maybe a lust for belonging and companionship. It's an innate human trait. An adolescent had followed me onto the dunes. I would have steered his attention, had I known, but the child stared at death. Within minutes, the excitement and panic of a single boy mobilized thousands. Running. Screaming. Some afraid, but most just happy to be a part of something. To have a story to tell.
The flat was adorned with dried poppies; somewhere, perhaps in a drawer, their opioid progeny were certain to be found. She was a sharp featured woman, respectable and attractive for her age. The kind of figure that aging women admire and aged men ignore. She knew about her husband's indiscretions for decades, but she could count on him to return, always. He hadn't. My job was confirm or refute long held suspicions, that way, she could make peace with herself while still in this world.
I was uninvited. Men have been killed for less, but he hadn't a gun and he was no killer. He wasn't a good man; maybe an opportunist whom life had denied most opportunities. He stared at me, wiping his hands and muttering a one word query: "Law?" I shook my head, unsure if he meant police or attorney. He didn't seem to care.
The fog rolled like a cloud through an elevated metropolis, scattering the usual hordes who were too daft to realize that evenings were most perfect when they were imperfect. Maybe this was how romantics saw the world: Through a lens too murky to see the details, too obscured to see the devil inside. Or maybe that's just how a cynic viewed romance. I couldn't be sure.
Four nails stood upright, but only three shadows sliced sideways across the plaster. One was simultaneously visible yet hiding in the shadows. The metaphor seduced me and I couldn't leave the trifle alone. It tugged against the wood and plaster before the century old bond finally capitulated with a quiet snap. I kept it in my breast pocket and left the rest of the room undisturbed.
A chorus of fans echoed through the alleys; their dull whirring providing accompaniment to the pitter patter of the rain, falling in sheets and pooling on the rooftops, sunken by age. The fire escapes wound together like an Escher drawing. I imagined a fire and the poor, escaping souls left to navigate this horrid system, blinded by the sting of smoke and water in their eyes. I always appreciated having a view.
The chimes were screwed into a rotted plank of wood, wires exposed in the rear, snaking through the walls of the old tenement and exposing themselves again in an unfinished ceiling. Four women stood in front of the building, watching me and waiting. The second of them was youngest; the most beautiful. I feared that the chime might one day reflect her physical condition: pushed on until broken and then discarded. I fingered the fourth chime, the most homely of the bunch, imagining with amusement the look on her madame's face. I wasn't a usual customer.
Each object looked like it was pulled from the ground, surely old to begin with, but almost indiscernible after being wrought by darkness and moisture. Perhaps the collection belonged to a gardener. I scanned down the row past keys and bottle caps and what looked like an old wagon wheel until I was struck by a delightfully ironic treasure that I wanted as soon as I saw it.
A wash of children ran by screaming and laughing and sloshing like the ocean itself. When the tide had washed out, only two old rocks were left behind, smoking in the sunlight; unconcerned by the day's excitements. I envied them and wondered what account they might give the police, who were soon to arrive.
Five utensils were lined up in the sink like a rogue's gallery, forgotten, when I took upon my flat. I saw no need to replace them or add to their ranks, despite their odd assortment. Once, I had a caller; she ate a small cake with my lowly tine. We stirred our tea with different sized spoons; I doubt she noticed.
The small banner was probably placed by a child. Now it frayed and frittered apart; a softening edge that would one day disappear altogether. Despair would wash across this imaginary wire-wrapped line, drowning the hope and opportunity on the other side. A few strands of barbed metal cannot contain a sea of desperation.
I took comfort in how little the boulevard had changed in the decade since I had arrived. Walking these old paths was like strolling through a memory, only betrayed by an occasional reflection reminding me of years past. Each of them and their stories a line carved into my face.
The old scoundrel was buried on an idyllic plot of land on the outskirts of a country estate. Nothing hinted at the violence of his life or his death. I had no purpose in visiting other than to see how a monster is interred. He was beside the two people who had brought him into this world, their graves long since roiled if they had any omniscience of their kin and his crimes.
The police had sectioned off about 2,500 square meters, pending investigation, then exhumation. I walked in tight ovals along the water's edge, straying far enough in either direction to avoid suspicion, or at least I had hoped. I was waiting for an aftershock of activity like the panic of birds, startled by a playful child. A pulsing alarm filled the empty sea air. They were bringing machinery to sift the earth.
His odds of escape grew with every passing second. The labrador had the exact position that I longed for in earlier moments. The high ground I found was in vain. He was gone and I wouldn't pursue him any further. The leather soles on my shoes skidded down the antique cobblestones like they were made of ice; an embarrassing defeat and a detail that I would withhold from my employer, if asked.
It was the last nice house on the block, which is a peculiar thing. I once stood at the edge of a daytime shower, stepping in and out of the rain at my will and leisure. This was no different. I wondered how the deedholder felt about his situation. He was probably less amused by it than I was.
This trip had been a useless tangent. I had wasted my time and my client's money, which I would unhappily reimburse, not out of obligation, but as a professional courtesy. Maybe I should remain out of country and sell outhouses to the elderly. They seemed contented enough on this rotten lido. I held my shoes and let my toes sink into the grit and sand. A line of fag ends ran down the coast, marking the height of the prior tide.
I continued cutting ovals, passing a few kilometers in either direction near the water's edge. Something in the distance looked like a black netting dragged across the earth. The pattern morphed into distinct shapes as I approached; it was a makeshift memorial or perhaps a political expression. Serendipity! A dozen panicked men were unearthing remains in the same sand, only a short stroll away.
He sat weeping beneath the tangle of snow-covered boughs and I realized my mistake. He wasn't some intermediary or facilitator like the others. He was her father. I hunkered six or seven benches away, puzzling details together in my mind's eye. Hours passed quietly until I was startled by my solitude and the emptiness around me.
Dabs of black spread across the sky like the universe was suspended inside a painter's cup, darkening each time she refreshed her brush. I watched the pedestrians plodding, unaware of the apocalypse above them. If they were able to ignore something so majestic, no wonder they were blind to the dreadful things about.
I took a kerchief from my pocket and toweled my boots, standing beside a queer photograph in the entrance way; fitting, I suppose, that it depicted a shower. The attendant in the lobby had graciously taken my mac and umbrella, sparing me the indignity of a soggy introduction. I lifted the copper knock, but returned it downward gingerly, stealing one more glance at the photograph before making my arrival known.
I spied the queerest of signs as I neared the border. All that remained was an ambiguous placard that read "It's The Law." Clearly it was meant to have a complement. I amused myself as I waited, thinking of mandates that armed men might enforce. No soiling your trousers: It's the law. No thieving of signs: It's the law. The queue motored forward and the sun grew hot.
The annex was built atop the roof in the late 1800s, probably to house a laborer whose function had long ceased to exist. Together, there were three rooms including a toilet, but no bath. A wooden slat hung by chains from the wall: A modest bed and a shocking anachronism in a modern city. This was not a legal residence, but someone lived here and probably paid rent all the same. His name wasn't Otis, this I knew. Perhaps he killed a man by that name.
The sun cast a natural camouflage; its light traveling 145 million kilometers through space and time, stopped shy of our Earth by the lowliest of tree parts. Creatures of all kinds migrate from the shade to bask in the warmth of the light. But for every one of them, a million others remain in the shadows never revealing their color.
The freedom in investigating private matters is reserving the right to judge character in a moment. The truth is broadcast amongst a sea of noise and deception and the ear must be attuned to hearing it, even from the most unlikely of sirens.
I entered this world on the 23rd day of November, the year, 1963. It was a world bathed in grief. A single departure overshadowed a million entrances, even across the sea. This was the sign I was born under; this was the birth of my obscurity. I was reminded of it on occasions such as this.
"Nothing stays buried forever." I've heard the saying since I was a boy and believed it for some while, but it's a half truth. No one stays buried forever. The earth on this estate will be turned one day, and with it, three tranquil graves. But the secrets that men take to the grave do stay buried. Even men like myself are quite incapable of bringing truth into light. We are explorers descending into the depths to catch a brief glimpse of what is, then returning, if we are so lucky, to share stories that are seldom believed in full.
The step looked fifty years younger than the brush that rested against it; the masonry looked a century older than the brush. What a queer place this was. Even the new things looked old. I feared for my appearance if I was to happen across a mirror. Perhaps Mr. Gray kept his picture here.
The defacement filled a void of some kind, blending naturally with the zigs and zags of the steps and the symmetry of the pavers below. The symbols intrigued me; all symbols do. I've spent afternoons with the dead, staring at their stones and the iconography carved within. Masons are everywhere, but so too are escutcheons of all kinds; their meaning known to a few live souls, or lost to the brushes of time.
I walked past rows of palms standing upright like musket brushes. The musket is a deceptive weapon. Its length suggests accuracy and precision, but its shell dances wildly in the air. I appreciated the blunderbuss: an honest weapon. It was simple and primitive and effective for its purpose, never making an unkept promise.
They had replaced the traffic signals with a grotesquely improved version. The old incandescent lamps bathed the street in a warm and comforting glow reminiscent of Christmas. The new lamps, if you could call them that, cast a harsh electronic light, never more jarring that after a storm. The asphalt looked as if it was awash in blood.
I did not like the sight of this tool. It was old and its serrated teeth were pristine, except nearest the handle where they were broken and malformed, and not in a way that suggested carpentry. This saw had cut bone. The force required for the task had left a lasting imprint on the metal's fine machinery.
The corridor and the auto parked aloft triggered a memory from time ago. I had been afraid then, but no longer. Perhaps a man waited around these walls to shoot me dead. I could not see and I could not know. But what good is this life if not for challenging the unknown.