The morning after his toupee took off Doherty sat his dining room table absentmindedly poking at a plate of scrambled eggs trying to think of what to do next. Whatever he did he would have to do quickly; the damn hairpiece could loot him six ways from Sunday if he just sat and did nothing. He'd already called the banks and the credit card companies; they told him they would be glad to freeze his accounts, and then they all began calling back some fifteen minutes later saying they were having some difficulties with their computers. Something odd was happening, one banker said, but they had their technical people working on it and the problem would sort itself out quickly and then they’d freeze his account. Doherty did not like the sound of that. The people at the other end of the line were all noncommittal about how long the difficulties with their computers were going to last. From experience with his own technical staff Doherty knew that he should multiply by five any repair time estimate given by a computer. Noncommittal answers meant a repair time of anywhere between ten minutes and fifteen years, if he was lucky. He said as much to the banker, who laughed and said that things weren't as bad as all that yet. Doherty thanked him and hung up the phone and knew he was in deep trouble. Bankers are not, as a rule, the most happy go lucky guys in the business world, although they are real lampshade on the head rips when you compare them to life insurance salesmen; bankers usually wind up in banking because they have all the personality and emotional intelligence of a weeping willow on a foggy day. So no matter what spin they try to put on the news they’re telling you, a jovial banker is a sure sign of that you’re about to take one in the neck. Doherty continued to poke at his scrambled eggs and wondered what he should do next. He thought of a number of possibilities, didn't like any of them, and tried to think of something else.
It was precisely at this moment when the idea of going to the police first occurred to him. It was obvious, he thought, so obvious that he hadn't thought of it. For most people it would've been the very first thing they did. He'd been the victim of a crime. True, the toupee was his property and that might make for a tricky legal question; he didn't know if property could steal itself, but he was sure the lawyers could work that out; why else have lawyers? But the toupee had stolen his car, his cash, and his credit cards, and he knew those were crimes no matter who committed them. He was an American citizen, a lapsed Catholic, a member in good standing of the Republican Party, and a reasonably upright and law-abiding person. He was the victim of an outrageous crime, that much was certain, and now it was time for the forces of law and order, whose salaries his taxes would've paid for if he'd paid any taxes that year, to go to work and hunt down the author of his distress and compel it to return his property to him. Yes, Doherty thought, that's the way to go about it. Arrest the damn thing and then send it to prison. After a few years behind bars he would recommend to the parole board that they release the toupee and return it to society. Having simultaneously satisfied his thirst for vengeance and his desire to be merciful Francis Doherty dug into his much picked over plate of scrambled eggs with a good appetite and some degree of his mental equanimity restored. He opened his newspaper with a flourish and went to the financial page to see how the Asian markets were doing.
The police station was new, a glass and concrete cube endowed by its creator with an absolute indifference to the tide of human vice and misery that passed through its doors every day. The police station was set squarely in the middle of a large parking lot, and the lot surrounded by two-chain link fences, each one topped with razor wire. At night the inner fence was electrified.
Francis Doherty parked his one German sports car in the visitors' section and went inside. A policewoman in a heavy blue sergeant's uniform sat at a large table in the middle of an empty lobby filling out a roster.
--I'd like to report a crime, Doherty said. I'd like to speak to a detective, if I could.
--Do you have an appointment, sir, the desk sergeant asked politely.
--I beg your pardon?
--An appointment, sir. Do you have an appointment?
--No, I don't have an appointment. Don't be ridiculous. I’ve just been robbed. That's not something I can schedule around the police department's social calendar.
--Be that as it may, sir, to see any member of the investigative staff requires an appointment. I can put you down for the tenth of next month.
--That's almost three weeks from now, Doherty exclaimed. I'll be broke by then.
--The police department is not responsible for your financial problems, sir, the desk sergeant said.
--This is ridiculous. I want to see your supervisor, Doherty demanded.
--I'm sorry, sir, but that's not possible, the desk sergeant said.
--You don't have an appointment. The supervisory staff can only be seen by appointment made in writing at least one month in advance. There are no exceptions to the rule, sir. None at all.
--Godammit, can I at least report a crime, Doherty said in exasperation.
--Oh yes, sir, the desk sergeant said brightly. Of course you can. This is a police station, after all. --Let me get you the right form. The desk sergeant opened several drawers and went through several reams of colored paper before pulling out a light blue sheet of paper. All right, here you go, sir, she said. Just fill that out front and back with one of the black ballpoint pens on the desk in Room 9. She pointed to a blue door with no number on it.
--All right, Doherty said, feeling very depressed. Thank you very much.
--It's no problem, sir, the desk sergeant said. The phone rang and she picked it up. Police department, how may I help you, she said cheerfully.
Doherty pushed the blue door open and walked in. The room looked like a classroom. There was a blackboard and a large desk in the front and long rows of smaller desks. An old man sat at the front desk reading a newspaper. He looked up as Doherty came in.
--Help you, son, the old man asked.
--I have to fill out a report, Doherty said. He held up the form he was holding.
--What color is that, son? My eyes aren't as good as they used to be.
--Blue, Doherty said.
--What shade of blue?
--Sort of light blue with a dark green border.
--There stuff written on the back? Lots of small boxes?
Doherty looked and said, Yes there is.
--You're reporting a burglary?
--Reporting a burglary. Well, you'll want a black ballpoint pen for that. Did the desk sergeant give you one?
--No, she said there'd be one in here, Doherty said.
--Dammit, I'm getting good and tired of them saying that. I've a good mind to go out there right now and tell her what's what. They count those pens every morning and every night and if there's some missing I have to pay for them out of my salary. The department's supposed to supply them, not me. Not that any of these bastards around here care one way or the other.
--Should I go and ask her, Doherty said.
The old man shook his head and said, No, don't bother, son. They'll just give you the runaround. They always do. Don't mind me. The people around here love to aggravate me. He opened the top drawer and took out a black ballpoint pen. There you go, son. Black ballpoint.
--Does it make a difference what color the ink is, Doherty asked.
--All the difference in the world. Light blue with a dark green border written with black ink is a burglary or robbery without the use a weapon. Light purple with red ink is a missing person report. Pink with black border and green ink is a homicide. You fill out that same form you got in your hand with red ink you'd be reporting a rape. There's lots of differences, son, hundreds of them maybe. I used to know'em all by heart but that was a long time ago. Anyway, you don't want to hear me natter on like an old fool. Here's your pen. Take a seat, any seat at all. Your choice entirely.
--Thank you, Doherty said as he took the pen. He sat down in the front row and started filling out the form. The first few questions were fairly mundane: name, address, phone number, an account of the crime, with a reckoning of what was taken and how much it was worth; Doherty didn't mention the rifled safe and the money he was keeping from the IRS, thinking that what they didn't know couldn't hurt him. Doherty filled out the front of the form quickly and turned it over. The first question on the back was "Do you believe in God?" There were boxes after the question marked Yes, No, Alternately Yes and No, Sometimes, and None Of The Above. The instructions said check one box only.
--Excuse me, sir, Doherty said, but there's a question here…
--You've gotten to the God question, haven't you, the old man asked, looking up from his newspaper.
--Yes, I have.
--Thought so. People always ask about that one. I shouldn't do this, son, but here's a bit of advice: check the Yes box.
--I would've done that anyway, Doherty said. I just don't understand why they are asking me this in the first place. What possible difference can it make to my case if I believe in God or not?
--More than you might think, son, the old man said. If you check off anything other than Yes no one will investigate your case. They'll pitch that form right into the wastepaper basket.
--That's crazy. They can't do something like that.
--Of course they can. They can do anything they want. And it's not really that crazy, not if you think about it for a minute. When you testify in court you have to swear with your hand on the Bible that the testimony you give shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God. Obviously what good is the word of someone that doesn't believe in God or believes in Him only when he feels like it? Under Section 167 of the Penal Code of this state the sworn word of an atheist, agnostic, lawyer, or insurance salesman is unacceptable as testimony unless corroborated by overwhelming physical evidence and the testimony of at least two nonatheist eyewitnesses to the crime. If you check the Yes box your word will be good enough, unless you’re a Red Sox fan. It's more for the district attorney's office than for the police. The police will investigate any crime reported to them but the district attorney won't try any case he can't win, so the police only give them cases with no loose ends. Check the Yes box, son. That way you avoid all the bureaucracy. But remember, you didn't hear that from me, okay?
--Okay, Doherty said. No problem. He checked the Yes box and went on from there. The questions became progressively stranger, touching on such subjects as his credit rating, the name of his high school football team, and whether or not he could distinguish salsa from merengue. When he finished he gave the old man back his black ballpoint pen. The old man thanked him and told Doherty not to worry, all would come right in time.
Doherty went out to the front desk. The desk sergeant took the form and signed it herself and stamped it with a variety of seals. All right, sir, about your appointment, when would be a convenient time for you?
--Now would be good, Doherty said.
The desk sergeant laughed and said, oh, that's a good one, sir. I'll have to remember that. That’s very good.
--I'm serious, sergeant, Doherty said. Is there any way I can see a detective today?
--Sir, the investigative staff is available by appointment only. I've already made that clear to you, the desk sergeant said.
--I know you have, sergeant, and I know you're just doing your job, but is there any way around that? Any at all? I really need to see someone about this today.
The desk sergeant pursed her lips and frowned. I shouldn't do this…well, let me call upstairs, sir, and see if there are any cancellations today. Sometimes people cancel their appointments and the detectives don't let me know, but if there are no cancellations I'm afraid you're stuck, sir.
--Please call, sergeant, Doherty said. This guy has my credit cards, my driver’s license, everything. He’s probably looting my bank account as I’m standing here.
--I understand, sir. Tell you what. Why don't you go and fix yourself a nice cup of coffee-the coffeepot's right around the corner-and I'll call and see if we can do anything for you today.
--Thanks a lot, Sergeant, Doherty said.
I'm happy to oblige, sir, the desk sergeant said. Now go get yourself some of that coffee. It'll make you feel better.
--Okay, thanks, I will.
Doherty followed the desk sergeant's advice. The coffeepot was where the desk sergeant said it would be: around the corner, surrounded by towers of Styrofoam cups, in a hall lined with vending machines selling nearly every known brand of soft drink, candy bar, and potato chip ever produced in the United States. The vending machines stretched down either side of the hall for as far as the eye could see. In the far distance, at the point where the two parallel lines of junk food converged, Doherty could see a microwave oven. The air smelled of stale burritos. Doherty picked up a cup and filled it to the brim with lukewarm coffee. He drank it black; there was no milk in the milk carton and no sugar in the sugar bowl. He went back around the corner.
The desk sergeant was still on the phone, frowning and nodding and saying yes sir and no sir constantly, with more of the latter than the former.
--Yes sir, she said, I realize that this is not standard procedure. Yes sir, I realize that there's very little precedent for this sort of thing. Yes sir, I know that. She covered the mouthpiece and said to Doherty, Sir, we may be able to do something for you if I can get the captain to go along with it. Just take a seat and I'll be with you just as soon a possible.
--All right, Doherty said.
The desk sergeant uncovered the mouthpiece and said, Yes sir, I'm pretty sure we can get him to sign a waiver; I don't think there'll be any problem there. No sir, no publicity whatsoever. I think he'll agree to that. Yes sir, I know. It would set a bad example for the public. We don't want to do that. Yes sir, I'll tell him. I'll explain everything. Yes sir, thank you sir. She put the receiver down in the cradle and leaned back in her chair. Asshole, she said.
Doherty got up and asked, What's going on?
--Sir, this is damn near a first, it really is, the desk sergeant said. There's been a cancellation and we've got a detective who'll see you right away.
--Great, Doherty said. Who do I see?
--Before you see anyone, sir, you'll have to sign a waiver.
--What kind of waiver?
--Well sir, this particular waiver says that you will not publicize the exception to the regulations that we are making in your case. It goes on to say that you will not sue the police department or the city in case we cannot solve your case and/or recover your property, and it goes on to say that in the event your case is solved the police department retains the right to use your name and image for publicity purposes for a period of not more than five years and not less than two years, whichever comes first.
--And if the case isn't solved, Doherty asked.
--The waiver states that you will not mention the investigation's negative result in any public forum or private communication in any format or media whatsoever for a period of fifteen years. By signing the waiver you agree to these terms and if you violate them in any manner the police department and/or the city reserves the right to sue you for breach of contract and defamation of character.
--Jesus, that's a heavy load, Doherty said.
--I know, sir, but you're the one who wants to see a detective today. The department just wants to protect itself against frivolous lawsuits. The way things are today you can never be too careful, I suppose. Do you want to sign the waiver?
--Under the circumstances I don't have much of a choice, do I, Doherty said.
--We always have choices, sir, the desk sergeant said.
--I'll sign, Doherty said.
The desk sergeant opened a drawer and took out a white form with a red border.
--There you go, sir, she said. Read it and sign on the bottom line on the front and back of the form. And don't forget to put in today's date.
--Any special color pen I have to sign this with?
The desk sergeant shook her head and said, No sir, sign with anything you want. Why do you ask?
--I just thought…never mind, it's not important. Doherty read the waiver carefully. The terms, set down in dense legal boilerplate, was more or less what the sergeant had described. He hesitated for a moment; he disliked having to sign anything without his lawyer going through it first; and then he signed, thinking that anything that got the police up and after his toupee was worth any temporary aggravation he might have to put up with. Okay, there you are, he said. Who do I see?
--Detective Neinstein. He's upstairs on the third floor in the homicide division.
--Homicide? Nobody's dead, Doherty said.
The desk sergeant scratched her head and said, I'm sorry, sir, but you wanted to speak to a detective right away and Detective Neinstein in Homicide is the only one available. The other detectives have other appointments and the entire burglary division is on vacation at the moment.
--The whole division?
--Yes sir. It's their annual jaunt to Las Vegas. They spend the whole year planning for it.
--Lucky me, Doherty said. When will they be back or should I bother to ask?
--About this time next month, the desk sergeant said.
--It figures. Well, any port in a storm, I suppose, Doherty said. Where do I find this guy?
Detective Neinstein's in room 315, sir, the desk sergeant said. Just take the elevator on up. He's waiting for you.
--Thanks, Doherty said.
--Anytime sir, glad to help, the desk sergeant said as Doherty got on the elevator.
The doors closed and music began to play as the elevator started upwards. Doherty had no real ear for music; he guessed it might be something by Mozart or Beethoven-he couldn't be sure. The elevator stopped and the doors opened on a scene of apparent chaos. Workmen were everywhere, hammering, pounding, shouting to one another in Spanish, painting the walls an off shade of white. As he stepped off the elevator someone began using a power saw. He stopped one of the workmen and asked where he could find room 315.
--Jeez, guy, I couldn't really tell you, the workman shouted over the saw's din. None of the doors got numbers on 'em yet. Tell you what you ought to do, though. Just go own to the end of this hall and make the right. There's people in them offices, I think. The rest of the floor's unoccupied. We're doing this as a rush job so I'm not too clear as to who's supposed to where, y'know? But those offices down off the right, they've got somebody in them. I'd say that was your best bet.
--Thanks a lot, Doherty said. He made his way past the stacks of lumber and piles of paint cans and saw horses and arguing workmen down to the end of the hall and around the corner to the right. Unmarked doors went down the length of the long hall. Damn, Doherty thought.
The first few doors he opened went nowhere; they were vast empty rooms filled with workmen eating their lunches and listening to music. The fifth door he tried opened on a receptionist talking on the telephone. She put her hand over the mouthpiece and said, I’m sorry, sir, please take a number and sit down and I'll be with you in just a minute.
Doherty took a number off a wheel on the receptionist’s desk and sat down in a chair along the wall next to three elderly men in shabby clothes. The old men paid no attention to Doherty; they argued with each other in whispers and together they stank like a racketeer’s campaign contribution and Doherty moved to the chair farthest away from them. Whenever their argument started to get loud they stopped and looked at the receptionist guiltily, and then calmed down.
The receptionist, for her part, seemed immune to their fetid reek; she talked on the telephone and scribbled in an appointment book with a pencil she slid into her electric pencil sharpener after every third or fourth word. She paid no attention to the old men, or to Doherty either, her whole air suggesting that she hadn’t asked these people to come into her office and so she was under no obligation to give them anything more than a ticket with a number and a chair to sit in, it being a longstanding tenet of civil service work that civil servants have more important things to do with their time than being civil to the public. One of the old men got up and went over to the receptionist and tried to ask her a question; she smiled and said, I don’t know, sir, sorry, and then took his ticket and tore it up, replacing it with another with a higher number on it. The old man looked as if he wanted to protest this, but his two friends shushed him and said, no, no, sit and wait, Morrie, your time will come. The old man did not look convinced; he looked at the ticket in his hand and its clearly undesirable number and made a sour face before shrugging his shoulders helplessly and sitting down again.
The receptionist spoke on the phone for another ten minutes and then slammed the receiver down and muttered, jackass. She bent over her address book and began to write furiously, not raising her head as detectives and uniformed police officers and people with no visible connection with the police department walked past her desk dropping files and manila envelopes into her in-basket. When the detectives and uniformed police officers and the people with no visible connection to the police department left the room, she tossed their files and manila envelopes into the trashcan.
Doherty waited a minute and then went over to the receptionist. Excuse me, miss, is this room 315, he asked.
--Say what, the receptionist asked; the sudden question shocked her out of her reverie. Can I help you? She asked the second question in the manner approved for all civil servants, which is to say, she made her question sound synonymous with why don’t you just drop dead?
---Is this room 315, Doherty asked again.
--Oh no, sir, this is room 215, the receptionist said brightly. Just go down to the end of this hall and go up the stairs. You can’t miss it, sir.
--Thank you, miss, Doherty said. He turned and headed for the door. As he left one of the old men went up to the receptionist and asked her something. She smiled and said she didn’t know, and then took the old man’s ticket, tore it up, and gave him another one with a higher number on it.
Doherty went down to the end of the hall, stepping to one side halfway there to avoid the sudden panicky rush of illegal immigrants trying to get over the border before the helicopters spotted them, and found the door to the stairwell. He started up the stairs.
An hour later, he was still going up the stairs, having gotten no closer to the third floor than when he started. Doherty sat down for a moment and stretched his legs. He heard someone coming down the stairs, the someone coming down the stairs singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic while bitching about the lousy food in this place. A moment later, the someone coming down the stairs reached the landing and stopped coming down the stairs, as it is not possible to come down the stairs while standing on a landing without the help of a quantum mechanic.
The someone who was now not coming down the stairs stood in amazement both at his not coming down the stairs any longer, as well as the sight of Doherty sitting down on the stairs. The someone was a tall black man dressed like an American Indian brave and a knight of the Round Table at the same time, and wearing a Catholic bishop’s miter on his head, an ensemble not conducive to finding employment in most respectable establishments.
--Hola, como esta usted hoy, senor, the someone asked.
--Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish, Doherty said.
--No hablo espanol tambien, the someone said, so it does get a bit confusing, doesn’t it, what with the whole Tower of Babel aspect that you have with this sort of thing. Where are you going?
--The third floor, Doherty said.
--Oh, that’s easy to find, the someone said, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it; I think I passed it back in 1948, but I’ve lost track of the time. I’m going down to the basement. Are you here to report a crime?
--Yes, I am, Doherty said.
--Well, so am I, the someone said. I killed my wife, yes, I did, I found the slut in the arms of another man and I killed her about as dead as you can kill anyone with a block of ice. It was hard going at first; my wife had a thick skull, God bless her, but eventually it caved in, just like I knew it would. I went on the run after I killed her, but my conscience started bothering me something awful so I came back to confess. The receptionist told me that they took confessions down in the basement so I’ve been trying to get down there but I don’t ever seem to get any closer. My conscience doesn’t seem to bother me as much these days and I wonder sometimes whether or not I should bother confessing at all, but I figure since I’ve got this much time invested I might as well go through with it. What’s the matter, sonny?
--It’s nothing, Doherty said, but weren’t you just a tall black man?
--Nope, I’ve been Chinese all of my life, the someone said. Why do you ask?
--I would have sworn you were tall and black just a minute ago, Doherty said.
--Must be the lousy lights they have in here, the someone said. Oh, I’m sorry, didn’t mean to be rude, I’m Gunnar Einarrson. Just call me Gunny, everyone does.
--Okay, Gunny. Francis Doherty. He put his hand out.
--Oh no, I don’t every shake hands, Gunny said. I need to ward off the dreaded scurvy.
--Shaking hands doesn’t spread scurvy, Doherty said.
--Are you a doctor?
--Then that’s just your opinion, isn’t it?
--No, it’s not, Doherty said. It’s a deficiency disease, I think they call it. Not enough Vitamin C in your diet; I read that somewhere.
--You shouldn’t believe everything you read, sonny Gunny said. The papers tell me that Adlai hasn’t got a chance in hell of beating Ike this November, but I haven’t given up hope. He got up and jumped over the railing and fell several stories to his death. Doherty tried to grab him as he went over the side but missed.
--This place is full of lunatics, Doherty said out loud.
--Hey, be careful who you’re calling a lunatic, Gunny called. There’re people in this stairwell who dislike that sort of thing. My apologies for the interruption, Francis, but I had to get down here to the twelfth floor; they’re having knishes tonight and I wanted to be first in line.
--You just fell…how are you still alive?
--Not to worry, guy, I landed on my head, Gunny said.
--And that’s the twelfth floor?
--Then what floor am I on? I was trying to get to room 315.
--Then you better start down, Francis, because you’ve missed where you’re going by a long shot.
--Okay, Doherty said. He started down the stairs.
Five hours later Gunny called, Francis, you want me to save you a knish?
--You want me to save you a knish? They’re almost out of them.
--Yes, please, would you? Hey, Gunny…
--Exactly how long does it take to get to the third floor?
--Beats the hell out of me. I haven’t been down that way in years. Didn’t I tell you that?
--Yeah, you did. Sorry. I forgot about that. I’m going to sit for a minute and let my legs rest. I’m getting tired here.
--You go ahead, Francis. Take your time. I’ll hang onto your knish.
Doherty sat down for a minute. His legs hurt and as he stretched, he fell through a conveniently placed deus ex machina time warp to the third floor, giving his left shin a rousing good whack in the process. He got up and limped through the stairwell door.
Room 315 was at the end of the hall. It was a crowded room, full of people typing or chatting. Some were typing and chatting, but these were a minority. Most people can either chat or type, but not both at the same time. There was a receptionist reading The National Enquirer at the front desk. Excuse me, miss, may I speak to Detective Neinstein, please?
The receptionist looked up and said, who?
--There’s no one here by that name, mister, she said.
The sergeant at the front desk just called him for an appointment, Doherty said.
--I don’t care, mister, there ain’t no one by that name here, the receptionist said.
--Neinstein, one of the typists said. Al Neinstein?
--I don’t know his first name, but he’s a detective in Homicide, Doherty said.
--Al Neinstein died years ago, the typist said, and he’d retired years before that. Do you want a knish?
--Do you want a knish?
--No, thank you, not at the moment, Doherty said.
--A shame, that. Most people don’t appreciate a nice knish nowadays. You’re sure you don’t want it?
--I’m sure. All I want to do is report a crime.
--Oh, is that all, the receptionist said. Then why didn’t you say so instead of blathering on and on and on about nothing at all? Just take a number and you can talk to the next available detective.
--Thank you, Doherty said. He took a number and sat down next to a group of old men who sat clutching their numbers and staring at the receptionist. She didn’t seem to care one way or the other, and as he sat waiting for his number to come up it occurred to Doherty, as he saw his reflection in the smooth glass surrounding the receptionist and thought that he ought to spend more time in the gym, he didn’t look as young as he used to be.