The investigators of the Conmy-Kirk detective agency don’t work in trench coats, drink on the job, or carry pistols. They are researchers who comb newspapers and government records in search of the tiny details that could make or break their clients’ fortunes. It is painstaking and unromantic, but as co-owner Murray Kirk is about to learn, those details can mean the difference between life and death.
The district attorney is cracking down on corruption in the NYPD, and the search is spreading like wildfire, forcing hundreds of policemen to resign in disgrace. When Conmy-Kirk is hired to clear the name of one of the accused, Kirk finds himself falling for his client’s daughter, a moral infraction that draws him deeper into the city’s underworld than he ever wanted to slip. This work isn’t like it is in the movies—if Murray Kirk catches a bullet, he’ll stay dead.
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The Eighth Circle
By Stanley Ellin
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1958 Stanley Ellin
All rights reserved.
"Truly, truly," Frank Conmy once said to him, "this is the dirty, beautiful, golden age of the filing cabinet."
They were at Frank's apartment in the St. Stephen that night, a clear, cold night, moonless but star-studded. Thirty stories below in Central Park sea lions barked zanily at the sky, and tigers snarled at the siren of an ambulance careening along Fifth Avenue....
"The soul is no longer a moth," Frank said later that evening, swashing a bucketful of cognac around in the balloon glass that might have grown root and stem from his hand. "No longer does it flutter high and free, gladly destroying itself at the end in the flame of the unknown. It is a dead bug pinned on a board. It is a collection of facts placed between the covers of a cardboard folder and locked into a filing cabinet. But the sweetest merchandise there is, if you know how to put it together, and what to do with it afterward."
Which, as Murray had to admit, was undeniable. If you learned anything from Frank Conmy it was how to get the facts, and how to put them down on paper, or microfilm, or recording tape, so that the customer could pick up and hold in his hand exactly what he had paid for.
But that was long ago, long before the Lundeen case was a matter of record. That case kicked a lot of nice theory and brandy philosophy into a cocked hat. If Frank had been around when it broke, things might have been different, but he wasn't, having died the year before, fighting to the end against high blood pressure and hypertension and damfool doctors with their damfool injunctions against liquor and cigars and good red meat. So the case was all Murray's. And all trouble.
Taking the long view, the trouble can be spotted in the way Lundeen's folder tells everything and nothing. On the one hand, it tells more about Lundeen and the people he was mixed up with than they ever dreamed would go down on any record. On the other hand, it omits some strangely interesting items. It does not, for example, tell about the curious pet kept by a Special Assistant District Attorney of New York County named Felix LoScalzo. Or that a prominent bookie named George Wykoff found Château d'Yquem too sweet for his palate at the dinner table. Or that Murray's father, a poor grocer and worse poet, once addressed a poem to William Jennings Bryan which began:
Let us heal greedy myopia, And look forward to Utopia.
None of these things are in the record, and yet, as Murray came to see, they are very much part of it. Frank would have slapped his forehead and bellowed at the idea, but Frank had always been a great one for the essentials alone, and the essentials were always what the customer was paying for, no more and no less.
"Who, what, when, where!" Frank used to say. "Get the facts, get them right, and get them down on the record. That's what I've built this agency on. That's what we live on here, while five hundred other pisspot outfits licensed in this state are starving to death!"
The first time Murray ever walked into the waiting room of the office he had heard Frank's voice raised in that declamation behind the door, and had almost walked out. But then his hand had encountered the loose change in his pocket—the reminder that his worldly wealth added up to eighty-five cents—and he had stayed, until the receptionist, a woman with the chilling smile of a volunteer social worker, ushered him into the sanctum sanctorum.
Nothing has been changed in the office over the years; it was the same then as it is now. Three sides of the room were intricately carved oak panels; the fourth side was a solid bank of metal filing cabinets. The rug underfoot had a deep, soft pile; all the furniture in the room had the patina that fine wood gets from age and proper care. And looking at Frank Conmy, Murray had the feeling that the same patina overlay the old man himself. Frank was close to seventy at the time, with the solid dewlaps and ruddy-cheeked, white-mustached look of a retired chairman of the board. But the eyes narrowly scanning Murray were sharp and alive.
"What did you want to see me about?" There was an immense walnut humidor on the desk before Frank. He pushed the humidor toward Murray and opened its lid with a pudgy, beautifully manicured hand.
"A job," Murray said. "I thought you might be able to fix me up with one."
The hand hesitated on the lid of the humidor and then gently closed it. "What gave you that idea?"
"Somebody from your office—a fellow named Collins—was talking to me last week. He said he was quitting, and you might have an empty spot."
"And what made Jack Collins think you were qualified to work here?"
"Well, I'm with a law firm—Cunliffe, Mead, and Appel—and he's been around there a few times on jobs for you. We got to know each other that way, and I guess he figured I could swing the deal."
"Maybe he did. But I'm sorry to say, Mr.—?"
"Kirk. Murray Kirk."
"I'm sorry to say, Mr. Kirk, that Jack is now somewhere on his way out to the Coast on a deal of his own, and not in a position to talk up for you. However, if he ever does get in touch with me, and there is an opening—"
"I know," Murray said. "Don't call us; we'll call you."
"Oh, come, you're being unreasonable, Mr. Kirk. You're letting your temper show." Frank Conmy smiled with venomous sweetness, a thin drawing back of the lips that flashed a set of teeth too perfect to be his own. "Don't you think someone in your spot should have sense enough to sit on his temper?"
Murray got up from his chair. "Not unless he's being paid a salary for it. Meanwhile, since I'm not on the payroll—"
"Sit down," Frank Conmy said, and Murray sat down. In the long minute that followed he came to understand pretty clearly what a man can feel while a bilious income-tax collector sizes him up and down wondering what to make of him. He was given that treatment until his stomach started to crawl.
"Are you still working for Cunliffe?" Frank asked suddenly.
"No, I quit this morning."
"What did you do while you were there? What kind of duties did you have?"
"Technically, I was a law clerk. Actually, I did a little of everything. Interviewed the cheaper clients, handled a few briefs, did leg-work, dusted the office. Oh, yes, once a month I had to go to Altman's to buy some detachable collars for Mr. Cunliffe."
"How long did this go on?"
"About a year."
"And before that?"
Murray thought that over. "How long before?"
"As far back as you want to go. But tell it fast, Mr. Kirk; you're living on borrowed time."
"All right," Murray said. "Raised on the West Side around 116th and Broadway, where my father ran a grocery. Went to City College and then into the army. When I got out of the army I went to St. John's Law on the G.I. Bill. Passed the Bar, and got a job with Cunliffe, Mead, and Appel. And here I am."
"Why?" Frank asked. "What made you quit the job with Cunliffe?"
"How much money?"
"They were paying me forty a week," Murray said. "Before taxes."
Frank snorted. "And you lived on that?"
"In a manner of speaking."
"And if I offered you fifty a week, it would be a big break, wouldn't it?"
"No," Murray said, "it wouldn't. But I'll take it to start with."
"I thought you would," said Frank Conmy.
Not long before his death Frank talked about that day.
"I remember it well," he said. "Jack Collins had told me you might be stopping by. 'Watch for a fellow with a choir-boy face, and a suit with a high shine on it, and a hungry look in his eye,' he told me, 'and grab him if you can.' I knew you the minute you started speaking your piece, because nobody on this green footstool ever had a hungrier look in his eye than you did. I could have bought you, body and soul, for a five-dollar bill."
"You old son of a bitch. And you let me sweat it out like that?"
"I did." Frank sighed wistfully. "God forgive me for saying it, Murray, but what other fun is left for a man who can't get on top of a woman any more than to kick the young ones who can right square in the belly? However, that's not the point of it. What I'm trying to teach you is that a hungry look is the biggest asset a man can show me. That's just what I was buying when I took you on for sixty a week."
"Sixty," said Frank equably, "and let's not argue about it. You know how any kind of arguing sets my blood to fizzing like seltzer water."
It had been fifty a week to start, and a hard fifty at that. Frank Conmy's office had two doors. Murray had entered through one; he was led out through the other into the suite of rooms beyond: the investigators' room, the stenographers' room, the storeroom, the photography lab. From Frank's manner of introduction he gathered that the most important person behind the scenes was Mrs. Knapp, who served simultaneously as his personal secretary, supervisor of the stenographers' pool, and assistant keeper of the keys. A small, trim woman with a dazzling, blue-tinted coiffure, she must have been extremely pretty thirty years before. The shadow of the good looks remained, but now they seemed as formidable as the lines of a pocket battleship.
While she filled out various employment forms for Murray she talked away at machine-gun tempo, laying down the law.
"Mr. Conmy is very strict about certain things, Mr. Kirk. You are not to loiter around the stenographers' room, or to have anything to do with the girls. You understand exactly what I mean by that, don't you?"
"Now, the confidential files are in Mr. Conmy's office, and I want to make it clear that they are not your concern at all. If you need material from them, or wish to return material to them, you will come to me, and I will take care of it. And you are not to leave anything from the files on your desk when you leave the office. Make sure they are all in my hands even if you are just leaving for a lunch period. Is that clear?"
"Any time you enter or leave the office you will sign the roster here—this one on my desk—in the proper column, and note the time. If you wish to make yourself available for extra duties after your regular work you will also sign the Availability column and write down where you may be reached. And please don't sign for availability unless you really mean it. It's a nuisance to go hunting around for a man at the last minute."
"What's the advantage in signing for availability at all?" Murray asked.
"You'll be paid overtime for such duties. And oh, yes, Mr. Conmy prefers that you don't go around talking about your work to anyone on the outside. It's customary for our people to simply say that they work for a research organization, if the matter comes up among strangers."
"And among friends?"
"You'll have to use your common sense for that, Mr. Kirk. Yes, sign here—and here. Do you have any questions?"
"No," Murray said. And then he couldn't resist saying, "It's not much like the movies, is it?"
Mrs. Knapp looked at him shrewdly. "No, it isn't, Mr. Kirk. We don't supply booze, blondes, or bullets. As a matter of fact, no one here is licensed to carry firearms except Mr. Conmy himself, and I very much doubt if Mr. Conmy knows one end of a gun from the other. Get it into your head, Mr. Kirk, that we are a legitimate business firm, authorized by the New York State Director of Licenses to perform certain lawful services. And you, young man, are as much bound by the laws of this state as the next person. I trust you'll always keep this in mind."
"I always will."
"Good. Now, you'll start on the executive files. Just follow me. There's an empty place at Mr. Manfredi's desk, and Mr. Manfredi here will explain what the executive files are. This is Mr. Kirk, Mr. Manfredi. I'll leave him in your charge."
There were a dozen desks in the big room, half of them occupied. Their occupants watched Mrs. Knapp's departure in silence, eyed their new confrere incuriously, and went back to work. Manfredi, thin, long-beaked, and as sad-looking as a captive crane, turned to Murray.
"And what got you into this trap, my friend?"
"There was a fellow worked here—Jack Collins. Did you know him?"
"You're sitting in his chair right now. He and I are like that, only he got this bug to open his own agency in L.A."
"Anyhow, he let me know how much he was making here. It sounded good."
"Probably did. But Jack was a real hatchet on the job, worked mostly on bonus cases. It takes a long time to get to that. I mean, just in case you figure you struck oil here."
"Well," Murray said, "when it comes down to that, time is all I've got to invest."
"Fair enough," said Manfredi. "Now I'll show you what you're investing it in."
The executive file was a stack of autobiographical résumés, some typed, many mimeographed, a few printed.
"This is the angle," Manfredi explained. "When a white-collar character wants a job with some big outfit around town he doesn't show his face there. He just mails off one of these things with his life history on it, and then prays. Then the company ships the stuff to us, and we make a check of everything in it. You know how to backtrack a lead? I mean, check off all this dope on schools and jobs and so on?"
"I did some for the place I worked at before this."
"Good. Then every place where you can okay it, you put down O.K. and your initials, and where you find the guy is lying you mark down N.G. and your initials. If there's something you can't clear up one way or the other, you leave a blank. Leave too many blanks or get caught faking reports, and you're out of a job.
"There's some other touches, too. For one thing, we've already got a file on a lot of these characters; there's nothing like this young executive type for floating around. For another thing—and this you don't go around talking about—you keep our files up to date with everything you pick up from these résumés as you go along. Everything we get on these guys goes into the freezer.
"The other job you've got with this stuff is a pain. Every morning they'll dump a lot of newspapers here. You've got to comb them double-quick, and dig out anything that can go into the files. The big ones like the Times are good for marriages, deaths, job promotions and such. The tabloids feed the dirt. You look through them for any scandals where the guy might be the executive type, and where you can come up with something good you just dump it into the file. And that's about the whole deal."
Murray said, "It sounds like a nice day's work."
"Oh, you'll get used to it. Anyhow, it keeps you off your feet, which is something. And it's a helluva lot better than writs and subpoenas. You've never been baptized, have you?"
"In what way?"
"That's what they call it around here the first time a woman spits in your eye because you hand her a writ. There's something about a legal paper that just makes a woman's mouth fill up, and then, brother, you're in for it. You'll find yourself ducking like an expert after a while."
Murray looked at him and saw that he meant it.
"Is that what most of the job is like?" Murray asked. "This stuff and legal papers?"
"Hell, no. This is a big operation, friend. All you know about it so far is the tail end. You stick it out for a while, and you'll find out what the rest of the deal is like."
Murray found out. He worked the executive file, he served legal papers and was baptized, he went on cases with Bruno Manfredi, and there came a time when he went on cases alone. Along the way he made the discovery that if you're paid well enough for lifting a rock you don't get too queasy at the sight of whatever is crawling underneath it.
Out of this he got, not only money, but through some slow, mysterious, unplanned process Frank Conmy's friendship as well. There was, Murray came to see, a terrible loneliness in Frank, the loneliness of a man who has kept his guard up so long that he has frozen rigid in that position. But then as brisk talks about agency business turned to amiable conversations the thaw set in. The first time Murray was ever in the apartment at the St. Stephen was on his thirtieth birthday, when Frank invited him up to celebrate at a party for two. It was a tremendously successful party, running through eight hours of monologue by Frank—part lecture, part reminiscence, and largely pornographic—and a quart of Grand Armagnac which left Murray praying for a swift death to end the retching vertigo that seized him at the dawn's early light.
Excerpted from The Eighth Circle by Stanley Ellin. Copyright © 1958 Stanley Ellin. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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