I was used to sitting alone in the deserted office building late into the night, long after the chattering secretaries and handsome young executives had gone home. Just me and the cleaning crew. I was hard at work on a case, my last, this one unpaid: clean out the paper.
After 40 years as a private detective, I was hanging it up. Going through the accumulated files, separating out the harmless from the must-be-destroyed, was a  dusty slog. Halfway through the second cabinet, in the M’s, I came to a case dear to my heart, my first. I put the folder down on the desk, leaned back in my chair, and remembered.
My ad in the Toronto Star rarely gets any response even today but I keep running it because I like seeing my name in the newspaper. Without referrals, I would be dead in the water. Back then, when I needed that first break, the ad was a sinkhole, sucking down my dough and giving back nothing for sixteen interminable weeks. One of only three ads offering the services of a private detective, mine was the smallest. I knew I had to up the size but after rent, food, and the occasional soothing shot of Crown Royal, I was flat broke.
Right then, when I was failing at figuring out how to finance another investment in my business, I got a break, a letter from a Scottish law firm, L.P. Ross and Co., offering me, me alone, sight unseen, a case, on retainer, a most generous advance enclosed. I had been recommended, they wrote, by the editor of the newspaper. Who would have guessed the guy knew who I was, let alone had a heart?
In the letter, L.P. Ross and Co. gave me their idea of a lead, a list of fifteen names, people who had known Henry McFarlin, the man they wanted traced, no reason given. The letter included assurances that their client’s intentions were sterling as was Mr. McFarlin’s character. That was nice to know. As broke as I was, my conscience then, same as now, wouldn’t tolerate my finding some poor innocent guy just so he could be privately bumped off.
I liked challenges and having the time and space to meet them my own way. That’s why I left the police force and had my name and motto, “Richard Young, Private Investigator, Discreet, Effective, Affordable,”  painted on the door to my first glorious office, a stuffy airshaft closet barely big enough for a desk, a chair, and a back alley file cabinet. As challenges go, this one didn’t seem all that formidable.
Like everyone else who breathed in our upright city, I immediately recognized one name on the list. Mrs. Isabel Sharpe, the elegant and still young Widow Sharpe, was a major rib of Toronto’s high society. Her husband had been killed about five years ago in a hunting accident. I couldn’t remember the details.
Henry had worked for her from early 1920 until the fall of 1921, the last time his family in Scotland had heard from him. I called, explained my business to her opaque man of business, and what do you know, he called back the next day to say the Sharpe babe was willing to see me.
Mrs. Sharpe’s perfectly uniformed maid took my hat and showed me into the perfectly decorated living room of the Forest Hill Lower Village mansion. She didn’t invite me to sit down. After what I presumed was the regulation ten minute wait, spent in a twitchy trance staring out the perfectly clean window at the perfectly manicured garden, still sparse at the end of May, the perfectly coiffed, very attractive mistress of the house made her entrance through the French doors.
“How do you do Mr. Young?”
“Okay, thanks for asking. I don’t want to beat around the bush, Mrs. Sharpe. Like I told your business guy, I’ve been hired by some folks in Scotland to find Henry McFarlin, if he’s still alive. He was employed by you and your husband, correct?” She nodded her affirmation. “Did you hear anything from him or about him after he left your employment?”
Mrs. Sharpe stopped for a moment to generate the ice to coat her answer. “No, Mr. Young, no, I haven’t heard anything pertaining to Henry McFarlin. At the time he was employed in our household it was my late husband who dealt with the staff, hiring and firing. I can’t help you with Mr. McFarlin’s current whereabouts. I haven’t seen or heard anything of him since he disappeared the day my husband died. He left so quickly he didn’t even take his belongings. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to find him. His character was not good. He is best left lost.”
I barely kept my face from showing my surprise at that neat little piece of character assassination. Very interesting. Might just be appropriately snobbish. Or, perhaps she was hiding something. I always keep my suspicions open until they close themselves.
Apparently finished squirting acid, Mrs. Sharpe turned, with a gracious nod of her head that managed to be phony, gestured for me to precede her through the open door into the hall where she summoned the maid to retrieve my hat and show me straight out. Next name?
Two weeks later I was down to the last person. Three of the people I hadn’t been able to find; most of the others didn’t remember Henry. After all, he had disappeared five years ago and lived in Toronto for only about 18 months. One jovial guy who polished shoes near the newspaper stand in the lobby of the King Edward Hotel, after assuring me that his memory was as sound as a bell, told me he’d known two Henry McFarlins. One Henry died in Scotland as a baby, the other Henry he met on the boat coming over to Halifax right after the Great War. Which one was I interested in? It didn’t matter because he had nothing coherent to say about either.
I was on the verge of giving up the case. Discouraged would be a wimpy word to describe how I felt. Hopeless would be more accurate, not only about the case but, worse, about whether I was going to make it on my own. I could always go back on the force, back into the damnable traces.
The last name on my list was Joe, plain Joe, plus an address. And glory be, that address matched a building, formerly a typical neat little brick bungalow, currently a paint peeling, shingle shedding mess, just off Jarvis, north of St. Lawrence Market. Not the best section of Toronto unless you were a John wanting to buy some amusement.
I could hear someone moving around inside. I knocked politely. No answer. Again. Again. I wasn’t going anywhere. Finally, in response to my now continuous hammering, the door creaked open. “What do you want?” asked a bum’s half hidden face. The stench of whisky hitchhiked out on his rotten socks breath. Stringy brown hair and beard stubble said he couldn’t be more than 35, maybe 40. His creased face, skeletal body, put him at ancient, like me today.
“My name’s Rick Young. I understand you knew Henry McFarlin. Folks in Scotland are looking for him. If you’re Joe, I was hoping you could tell me something about him.” The crack got smaller fast. My foot impeded its progress. I threaded a $20 bill, but not my hand, through what remained of the opening. Twenty dollars was a lot of money back then.
The fissure gaped as Joe, I presumed Joe, opened the door and motioned for me to follow him, which I did, with reluctance. My excitement in having possibly picked up Henry’s trail was barely surviving the reality of entering Joe’s abode.
The room was sparsely furnished. An old army cot, bare mattress and crumpled wool army blanket, two stools, an orange crate stuffed with balled up clothes, piles of yellowed newspaper, an iron wood stove. Empty liquor bottles and clods of unidentifiable filth dotted the floor. I hoped the clods were food and prayed my sense of smell would conk out soon. The only light in the room filtered in through the two dirt covered back windows, one with a lightning bolt fracture.
Joe flicked his hand at one of the stools and, picking up the half full bottle of whisky, sat down opposite me, too close, on the other. He raised the bottle, stopped, lowered it, and offered me a swig. When I refused he gave me a nod I took as gratitude for not diminishing his meager supply. He clearly had not registered that he was now, thanks to me, a rich man, comparatively speaking. Swig swallowed, Joe wiped his mouth on his dirt encrusted sleeve, shivered from head to foot like a wet dog, and growled out, “What can I do for you?”
Although doubting his ability to answer questions in his condition, a drowning man, I clung to my last twig. “What do you know about Henry McFarlin?”
Joe’s head popped up, his eyes widening as he stared at me. He must have forgotten why I was there. He didn’t look at all pleased to be reminded. In the end though we may have both come out to the good. His answer gave me what I had abandoned hope of getting in this case, a solid lead, and, eventually, released him back into life.
“Why do you want to know?”
I repeated my story which seemed to assure him of my bone fides because he started talking. His Scotch accent mixed with the slurring effects of the booze meant I had to listen very carefully to make sense of what he said.
“Henry was a good friend of mine. I met him on the Caledonia when both of us was coming over from Scotland, after we survived fighting in the Great War. He was a strong young fellow, full of ideas, determined to strike it rich in Canada.
“Soon as he got here, he found himself a job at a classy mansion as a gardener. Don’t know as there ever was or ever will be nobody could take care of a plants like Henry. Or have people take a liking to him. He was real popular with everyone at that Sharpe place.”
He stopped, took another hit from the bottle. I waited impatiently. “Yes, and so,” I prodded.
“Well anyway, like I said, he was well liked. Mr. Sharpe liked having him around. Even took him fishing way up north in the Territories one time. Joe knew a lot about fishing.”
Joe stopped for another swig. He smiled slightly. Not only was he telling me what I wanted to know about Henry but he was digging into the past for details he seemed to relish remembering. “And then,” I said encouragingly.
“But that Mrs. Sharpe, she really liked him, if you get my gist. She was always trying to get him alone, wouldn’t leave him alone. No matter how he tried to avoid her, she came after him, ambushed him left and right, always telling him how handsome and smart he was and how she wanted him to like her, and all that. Joe, Henry says to me, I wish she would stop. I’m afraid she might be like that Mrs. Potiphar. We knew our Bible, we did.”
I knew my Bible too.
“Well, it got so bad he had just about decided cut out. When he told Mrs. Sharpe, she said she’d tell Mr. Sharpe he’d been bothering her if he quit. No references. Just when he was getting ready to leap anyhow, Mr. Sharpe asks him to come along on a short hunting trip on a private estate down the Lake apiece. Give his friends some advice on their gardens, help out with the equipment, stuff like that.
“Mr. Sharpe promised Henry a chance to do a little shooting too. Henry hadn’t done any hunting since he left home. He was glad to go, to get away even for just a few days.”
“Next thing I know, Henry is banging on my door in the middle of the night, begging me for my little stash of money, telling me he’s got to get out of town fast.”
“I didn’t know she’d be coming too,” he says. “I’d never have gone if I had. She’s ruined my life,” he says.
“Slow down, Henry,” I says. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
“I didn’t kill him. No one will believe me! All I know is we’re out in the woods hunting deer, I take a shot and the next thing I know that bitch is wailing over her husband’s body, bleeding on the ground, screaming I killed him.”
“Of course I gave him my money and said I’d cover for him in case anyone asked. I agreed to say he’d gone south, over the border, to the States. But he hadn’t. He went up to Kirkland Lake and as far as I know he’s still there, maybe living alone in the woods, maybe a gold millionaire. I don’t know. He sent me my money back in an envelope, no note, after about a year, and then I never heard another peep.
“Funny thing is, you’re the first one who’s ever asked me about him. Guess that Mrs. Potifar didn’t know he had any friends on his own. She never sent the cops to talk to me.”
Joe stopped talking and looked at me with a dazed look. “Guess I didn’t have to keep drinking to forget what I’d promised him after all.”
I believed Joe had told me everything he knew. He was too drunk to lie. It had been so easily I was almost disappointed. My way forward was clear. I reached into my pocket and extended two twenties this time. He snatched the money, barely nodding his head in thanks.
“You deserve it, Joe,” I said. “You’ve been a good friend to Henry and a big help to me.”  Then I high-tailed it out the door, wanting to get the smell of Joe and his place out of my nose, as fast as I could. I was anxious to make my inaugural trip to Kirkland Lake, a town that had been all over the papers in recent years.
But first I had to do a little research. Not hard. A two hour visit to the newspaper morgue the next morning told me what I wanted to know. I was feeling so light-hearted, I even made a quick visit to my benefactor to let him know the case was breaking and that I would be tripling the size of my ad.
The overnight train trip to Kirkland Lake a nightmare. The temperature swung between boiling and freezing. The whole railcar reeked of sweaty people, cigarette, pipe, and cigar smoke. I had to keep puffing my Camels in self-defense. My fellow travelers looked to be men and their families, each one including a screaming baby, going north to look for work in the gold mines or the businesses the mines had brought in their wake. The train jolted and jerked all the way except for an endless couple of hours in the middle of the night waiting on a siding.
By the time I stumbled off into fresh air, I had a whopper of a headache. I was sure I was coming down with pneumonia. I checked into the first hotel I came to, a comfortingly solid brick structure, ordered up a bath, arranged for meals to be left outside my door at regular intervals, and put myself down to recover.
Two days later, I was ready to start my local search. I guessed Henry would be living under an alias so I took the indirect route and asked the desk clerk if he knew of a man who did gardening around the town. “You must mean Bill,” he said.
“Have any idea when Bill might have come up here?” I asked, off-handedly, trying not to let too much interest show in my voice or my face.
“Oh, sometime after the War, maybe six, seven years after.” That checked out. I asked him where Bill lived. “In a cabin about a mile from here. Go down the dirt road behind the hotel and take the first path to the left, follow it straight ahead, and you’ll find Bill’s cabin.” I thanked him and turned to go out the door.
“Mister, you’d better get into some heavier clothes,” he said. “Those black flies are vicious. And here, you’d better take some bear grease for your face and hands,” he added, shoving a jar toward me across the counter.
Thanking him again, I rushed upstairs and fifteen minutes later, left for the woods sufficiently clothed to fend off any insect attacks and reeking so horribly I once again cursed my sense of smell. The instant hand to nose reaction I got from a lady who passed me in the doorway as I was leaving confirmed I was pungent. Would I never be free of noxious odors on this case?
Following the clerk’s directions, I came to a log cabin in the forest. As I peeked into the window, clean but covered inside with a curtain that blocked my view, I heard a rustling behind me. I start to turn around, saw a figure in my peripheral vision, and then everything went black.
When I awoke I had a throbbing headache, making the one I had acquired on the train seem amateur. I looked around. I was alone, stretched out on a cot. When I tried to explore my head for lumps I realized not only my arms but legs too were tied securely. Triple crapola. How long had I been out? How long was I going to be tied up? A man’s bladder can’t hold out forever and mine was beginning to talk to me.
Apparently I was not unobserved because the door to my left opened. A clean shaven, tall man with auburn hair sauntered into the room. Good looking guy. Mrs. Sharpe had excellent taste. He stared at me contemplatively. I stared right back at him, trying to put some venom into my glare. He looked away and then back again, surveying me from top to bottom as he bent toward me slightly, sizing me up. Or maybe he was thinking over whether he really wanted to get close enough to me to untie me. I didn’t blame him.
“I’m sorry I hit you so hard,” he said with a distinct Scottish burr, just like Joe’s but without the liquid additive. “I didn’t mean to but I’m not very experienced at that sort of thing and I misjudged. Would you mind very much stating your business. Who are you and why were you peeping into my window?”
“Would you mind untying me first,” I said, emphasizing the “first.”
“State your business.”
I could see I was getting nowhere so I took a deep breath and recited my story. “My name is Rick Young. I’m a private detective. I’ve been hired by a firm in Scotland, L.P. Ross and Co., to find Henry McFarlin.” His eyebrows shot up but he didn’t say a word. “I followed a trail from Mrs. Isabel Sharpe,” I paused while he slumped into the easy chair in front of the wood stove, and then went on to say slowly, “from Mrs. Isabel Sharpe to Joe.”
He put his head in his hands, sighed heavily and then lifted his eyes and said, “You know everything then.” He came over and, holding his breath, untied me.
“You’d better go through there,” he said, gesturing to a curtain hung on one wall, “to get rid of that bear grease. You’ll find water, soap, a towel and the privy, if you need it.” Hah.
As I restored myself, my mood lightened considerably. I had high hopes we were going to be able to have a civilized conversation. Too bad we couldn’t have reached this level of friendly interaction without my getting bonked on the head. I understood though. Henry, aka Bill, thought he had something to hide, and was so afraid of being discovered that he was primed to act first and ask questions later.
When I came back through the curtain, Henry handed me a stiff shot of something in a tin cup. Hit the spot. Except for my “thank you,” neither of us spoke. I sat down opposite him on one of the chairs backed up to the plank table, put the empty cup down, alternatively rubbed my head and my wrists, and fixed him with a stare.
“Do you want me to come with you?” he asked.
“I told you,” I said, “I’m a private investigator, not a policeman. But I’d still like you to tell me what happened.”
“You probably won’t believe me, but here’s my story.” He got up, walked over to the door, opened it, looked out, closed it again and turned around to face me where I sat, still rubbing my wrists.
“Joe probably told you everything, at least as far as he knew. My employer, Mr. Sharpe, was a good man. As he got to know me and what I could do, he gradually began to trust me with more and more of the management of the house, even putting me in charge of some of the staff. Sure I was an employee, but we enjoyed each other’s company, even fished together in the Territories one time.
“After I’d been with the Sharpes for about 18 months, Mr. Sharpe asked me to go with him on a hunting trip, this one a long weekend at a private estate on Lake Ontario, just east of Toronto. At the last minute, I found out his wife was coming along. I didn’t like it, but there wasn’t anything I could do.
“She wasn’t there for the hunting, just the chance to keep making sly comments to me when she caught me alone, trying to convince me to take her to bed. The things that woman said! She kept assuring me Mr. Sharpe was a heavy sleeper and never woke up during the night. She even hinted Mr. Sharpe was like a eunuch and couldn’t, well, perform. He wouldn’t care if she came to my bed. He’d consider it a favor!
“On the last day of our trip, Mrs. Sharpe decided she had to come with us, to look at the birds and bees while we hunted deer. It’s always a stupid idea to have tourists wandering around a hunt but again, what could I do? She had Mr. Sharpe wound tight around her little finger and he said it was okay as long as she stuck close to him.”
As he talked, Henry paced back and forth. Finally, just as I was about to scream, “For heaven’s sake, man, will you stop that pacing. Sit down!” he stopped in front of the stove, and started to make bloody coffee. Blessedly, he kept talking while at his task. His back to me, I could barely hear him.
“We agreed Mr. Sharpe and Mrs. Sharpe would go to the left, along the edge of the woods while I went straight ahead, into the trees. After about two minutes, I heard a noise in the bushes to my right, saw movement, a beautiful doe, so I shot, and missed. As she went crashing off through the brush, I heard another shot. It had to be from Mr. Sharpe’s gun.
“The next thing I knew I heard Mrs. Sharpe screaming, ‘You’ve killed him! You’ve killed my husband.’”  He whirled around to face me, deep furrows between his eyebrows. “I jammed on the safety and ran the short distance back through the woods, toward her voice. When I found them, Mrs. Sharpe was bending over her husband, wailing and thrashing her arms around. He was lying face down on the ground, blood seeping from under his body, his rifle thrown off to the side.”
“You shot him,” she screeched. “You’ve killed him.”
“I knew I didn’t kill Mrs. Sharpe’s husband. Right then, though, I panicked. Who would believe me? Isabel, that Jezebel, would tell them I’d done it. The night before when I refused her again—she had come into in my room and woke me up by stroking my cheek–she got furious and hissed she’d pay me back.
“I was scared stiff but I still had enough sense to know I had to get out of there fast, before Mrs. Sharpe got back to the estate house. I turned and ran across the field, down to the lake where the estate kept its motor boats. I jumped in one and headed back to Toronto, ditching my rifle in the deep water on the way. I abandoned the boat at the foot of Yonge Street and hitched a ride to Joe’s to get some clothes and money.
“Joe was a real pal. He agreed to tell anyone who asked after me that I’d gone to the States, no idea where. I did consider the States, except my Scotch accent would be less conspicuous in Canada. Besides, I knew Canada, knew Kirkland Lake was a booming frontier where no one would ask any questions and I could get lost. I hitched and walked down to Hamilton first, to throw anyone looking for me off my trail, and then made my way north, looking back over my shoulder the whole way. I still am.
“I’m tired, Rick,” he said. “I’ve been so afraid of being discovered, living in fear all these years, I’ve almost forgotten how good it feels to breathe free. Now that you’ve shown up, I don’t have the energy to keep hiding.”
Poor Henry. If only he’d stayed long enough to find out what happened. If only he’d read the newspaper! Mr. Sharpe was dead all right except no one accused Henry of doing the deed. Mrs. Sharpe said he’d shot himself when he tripped over a root and his gun discharged when he dropped it. The bullet hit him in the chest, killing him instantly. The coroner’s report stated he had been shot at very close range. In those days, just before forensic ballistics, there wasn’t much else to say. Of Henry there was almost no mention except to say an employee who was supposed to have been hunting with Mr. Sharpe that day had instead absconded with one of the estate boats, later recovered in the Toronto Harbour. End of story.
When I gave Henry the news, he turned aside and gave a few deep sobs, unsuccessfully disguised as coughs. He deserved them. “You are a blessing,” he said, holding out his hand. “You’ve brought me peace, given me back my future. I’m still young, barely thirty. Maybe….”
I had my own theory about what had really happened but I didn’t share it with Henry. Instead, I asked him to trust me, to come back to Toronto with me.
To my pleasant surprise, the train ride back was bearable. Daytime. Not many people going south. Fewer smokers. Not many kids. Henry looked very respectable if uncomfortable in the business suit I had bought him at the local Hudson’s Bay Company.
We got into Toronto in the late afternoon, grabbed a bite to eat in Union Station, and then took a cab up to the Sharpe place. Henry sat stone still. He was letting me take him into the lioness’s den.
“I want to see how Mrs. Sharpe reacts when she sees you,” I told him for the umpteenth time, to bolster his spirit. “I have a hunch about how Mr. Sharpe met his end and I’m hoping the sight of you will bring it to light.” After asking the cabbie to wait, we headed up the concrete walk to the front door. As wound up as he was, I saw Henry still couldn’t resist checking out the landscaping.
The house was dark. We rang the bell. Twice. Banged the knocker. About five minutes passed. I was gearing up to wrestle my frustration when Mrs. Sharpe’s maid answered the door, tears streaming down her face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. Between sobs, she managed to make herself understood. “The mistress. Hunting with her new husband. Accident. Killed.”
Henry and I looked at each other, stunned. My jaw actually dropped. Henry’s mouth contracted into a hard, thin line. Neither of us made even the appropriate insincere token condolence noises before turning in unison to walk back down to the waiting cab. We rode to the Western Union near my office in silence, my theories as useless as his determination to confront his former employer about the hole she’d blown through his life.
L.P. Ross and Co. responded immediately to my “Found him; mission accomplished” telegram with their own saying “Don’t lose him; letter for Henry and final fee payment on their way.” I invited Henry to occupy my couch while we waited for their letters to float their way across the Atlantic. Never one to stay idle, he got himself a grounds job with one of the major landscaping firms in town that specialized in institutions like the University of Toronto and Upper Canada College. He said he felt safer that way.
The next thing Henry did was to go see Joe who almost choked on his swig when he saw Henry standing in his doorway. Within a week, Henry managed to get Joe cleaned up, mostly off the booze, and employed, on probation, with the landscaping firm.
When they came, I put the L.P. Ross letter addressed to me in my briefcase and the one addressed to Henry on my kitchen table where I figured he couldn’t miss it when he came in. I was wrong. When he came through the door he headed straight for the shower. Working outside in Toronto’s mid-summer humidity focuses the mind. Curiosity killed the cat and I was about to succumb myself if I didn’t get into his envelope soon.
When Henry finally read its contents he found news of an inheritance, small but still significant, from a distant relative he had forgotten about, met only once when he was a wee lad. If Henry had had any inkling of the dough fruit hanging from a branch of the family tree, it’s possible he would never have left Scotland.
Also included in the envelope were heart-rending pages from his mother and sister who were overjoyed he’d been found and desperate to see him again, to have him come back and live near them. They hadn’t yet received Henry’s letter to them, the first he’d dared to send them since he fled north.
Henry had some decisions to make—go back or stay, bring his family over to Canada or visit them in Scotland now and then. Good options for a good man like Henry.
Ah yes, these life choices. Not easy no matter what age you are. If you’re lucky enough to get an inspiration, have something light your fire, you may not even notice you’ve made a choice. You take off like a firecracker, work your ass off, and, if luck breaks your way, you live a life you enjoy.
That was Henry. After he brought his family to live with him in Canada, he built a successful landscaping and construction firm, well respected throughout the Golden Horseshoe of southern Ontario and not unknown as far north as Kirkland Lake.
And that was me too, after I found Henry. My investigative talent and delightful personality, not that stunningly large ad I funded in gratitude, kept the referrals flowing. I managed to have a satisfying, adequately lucrative career.
Those damn forks in the road, though. You can’t keep avoiding them forever. Sooner or later, more often than you’d like, you have to figure out all over again which way it’ll be now. Soon, when all this paper distraction is behind me, and here I gave thanks for what had been waiting for me in the letter M, I too, old codger that I am, will again have to choose what to do with what remains to me of my life.

Historical Note:  I wrote the original version of Boomerang 1960 as an assignment for a 10th Grade English class.