Harlan Ulrich picked up the tin on his desk, giving it a little shake.
“Oh, thank God.”
The rattling of coffee beans could be heard from within. Prying off the lid, he peered inside. There looked to be just enough for a single cup. Standing up from his desk, he sought out his hand-grinder on a shelf overburdened with books and folios and took to carefully pouring the precious beans into it. Then, pacing around the cluttered office, he began to turn the handle.
“One day you'll have to do without beans, Harlan. But not today,” he told himself, turning the handle clockwise and watching with child-like wonder as the fresh grounds accumulated in the glass hopper. When the grinding was through, he pulled a water bottle from his bag and knocked aside piles of old mail in order to unearth his electric kettle.
He poured nearly three-fourths of the water into the vessel, taking special care not to over or under-fill it, and then set it to boil. With great speed, he rifled through the drawers of his desk for his steel funnel. It wasn't so aesthetic as the ceramic pour-over systems the cafes in town used, but it got the job done. Into this, he placed a crumpled paper filter, which was subsequently dampened with a touch of water. The grounds were added and the whole apparatus was placed on the window sill as he waited for the water to finish boiling.
He sighed, tugging on the hem of his vest. It was cold in the office, the chill of late autumn creeping in through the seams of the door and the poorly insulated window. Come winter, he'd be able to see his breath inside, and there'd be a thin film of ice forming on the inside of the windowpane. Ulrich grimaced, recalling the brutality of Toledo winters. He was a creature much opposed to the cold, and the winter months in Northwest Ohio never failed to leave him miserable. He kept the thermostat just high enough to keep the pipes from bursting whenever the temperatures dipped below freezing, and hoped constantly that the old woman who ran the deli downstairs would crank up her heat and warm his place by proxy. To do otherwise would be too damn expensive.
The kettle clicked off.
Ulrich let the water sit till it'd cooled just shy of boiling, and then, carrying the kettle to the window, he slowly dampened the grounds. The smell of fresh coffee filled the air, drawing a satisfied sigh from his chapped lips. When the grounds had been fully soaked, he continued to pour the water into the filter, meticulously wetting the grounds in a clockwise, then counter-clockwise fashion, till the kettle was empty. This was done to assure an even steep and to avoid brewing bitter, undrinkable coffee. The drip-drip of the stuff as it streamed into his mug from the funnel was a soothing reassurance that he would soon enjoy a bolus of caffeine, a boost he sorely needed on this chill, disagreeable morning. While the coffee finished brewing, he ambled to the closet and picked up his old boombox. Some music, a bit of Sinatra, would be the pièce de résistance, the final ingredient to a blissful morning.
He'd been out of work for a while, had had some trouble in rummaging up a fresh case. Or, at least, a worthwhile case. There was plenty of work to be had in dreary Toledo if one was willing to throw standards to the wind. There'd been a handful of inquiries in the past few weeks, but none of them had been interesting enough to warrant his attention. If something intriguing didn't come around and pique his interest soon, he'd either have to take whatever crap came his way or skip out on rent. He didn't dwell on that, though. Ulrich was determined to make it a pleasant morning; good coffee, good music and a bit of solitude were all he needed. If the business should fold due to his inaction, then so be it. He was in no mood to rescue it, to waste time on advertisements or in courting new clients. Perhaps things would be better that way, he thought as he rifled through his closet. For too long now the work had been boring and unrewarding.
On mornings like this one, when his mood was foul and funds were low, he always had trouble recalling just why it was he'd taken up this line of work. One too many detective novels in his adolescence, probably, had trumped up the allure of a career in private investigation. In reality, his was a humdrum existence. Paperwork, red tape, involving himself in the monotony of other people's lives. That was all there was to it. The thought of taking on another boring job, of dealing with some vapid client, was enough to make him want to throw in the towel.
It was while he palmed away a thin veneer of dust from the top of the boombox and plugged it in that he heard the sound of someone mounting the stairs outside. He stiffened, the dripping of the coffee dying out.
Someone was heading up to his office.
Grimacing, he switched on the boombox, the disc within spitting out a grainy rendition of “Mr. Success” at once. A favorite of his. He loved the way it started with an energetic swell from the band. Ordinarily the first few bars were sufficient to improve his mood, though as the sound of footsteps mounting the stairwell persisted, the usual joy proved absent.
The first knock came a few moments later. Just like that Ulrich could feel his grasp on the day weakening. His relaxing morning ritual was being interrupted before he could even take a sip of his coffee, before he even had a chance to sing along with the first chorus. And for what? Someone wanted something from him, but he was in no mood to give. Looking to the door narrowly, his face grew flush.
No, he thought. Not today. Go away, damn you.
Ulrich turned up the volume, pretended not to hear the knocking, and pulled the funnel from his mug.
Then the second knock came, more urgent than the last.
He held the mug to his lips, the delicious steam teasing the tip of his nose. Who the hell was it? It was early, on a Monday. It wasn't the woman from the deli; the knock was too forceful, too impatient for that. A creditor, maybe? He shook his head. No, probably someone looking to hire him. Someone looking to take up his time with a groan-worthy request for investigation. They were damn early, whoever they were.
Another turn of the volume knob. Go away. Just go away. It's not a good time. Leave me in peace. Can't you see I'm trying to enjoy my morning? I have something beautiful here.
There was a pause in the knocking. Ulrich waited, listening for the sounds of the knocker's retreat while hopefully tapping his foot to the tune. Perhaps they'd given up, changed their mind. Maybe he'd be able to drink his coffee in peace and enjoy his morning after all.
No such luck.
A third knock.
Groaning, he set down his mug and rushed towards the door, throwing it open roughly and giving his visitor a terrible fright. From the first, he leveled his steely eyes on the knocker, his greying eyebrows gravely knit. He made no effort to hide his scowl. “You know what you've done?” he bellowed in competition with Ol' Blue Eyes. “It's like interrupting a church service, pounding on my door like that so early in the day, while I'm still getting myself squared away.” Ulrich lashed out before even getting a proper look at the man who stood outside his door. It didn't really matter who was knocking; it might've been the Dalai Lama himself and Ulrich's response would have been just as venomous.
The visitor, a paunchy, balding fellow in a cheap suit, took a step backward, eyes wide. He was a fair bit shorter than Ulrich, and braced himself against the nearest wall as though he feared for his safety.
“Well, what do you want, then?” Ulrich placed a thin arm against the door frame and leaned to one side, glaring expectantly at his visitor. The edge of his vest rode up, revealing his slight waist and the hastily tucked bottom of his gingham dress shirt.
“Y-you're Harlan Ulrich, the private investigator, aren't you?” the man stammered. He pressed his hammy hands together till the swollen tips of his fingers turned reddish.
“Mr. Success” finished and a quieter tune began. Ulrich dampened his lips and gave a nod, followed by a grunt.
The man continued. “Right, well, I've come here in the hopes that you might be able to help me out. I've got a case for you, and--”
Ulrich raised one of his hands and waved the man away. “Not a good time.” With that, he slowly stepped back into the room and closed the door. Punching one of the buttons on the boombox, he returned to “Mr. Success” and cranked up the volume afresh.
I'm not in the mood for running errands. That greasy cur can get--
During a lull in the music, the man in the hall chanced to squeak. “Sir, it's important, and I'm in a great hurry. I'll pay you well, of course. But time is of the essence.”
Glaring at the door, and then peering at the steaming cup of coffee on his desk, he ran his tongue along his molars. “Urgent?” he mumbled. “Yes, yes, I'm sure it's veryurgent.” Ulrich rolled his eyes. Plucking up the mug, he took a sip of the hot brew and sighed, sending a cloud of steam across his face.
The coffee was perfect; there were light notes of chocolate and caramel to be found there. It was from a local roaster, something of a rare bean, and had been masterfully selected. Like a fine wine he sipped and sniffed, enjoying the warmth it gifted him. With every gulp his body loosened, the tension in his shoulders disappearing and a slight smile widening across his lips.
Savoring his coffee, he glanced askance at the door and slowly paced towards it. Perhaps it was simply the caffeine, but he was feeling suddenly magnanimous. More likely, his subconscious mind had reminded him with that single sip that he'd just run out of beans, and that without more money, he'd be doing without coffee for a long time. Opening the door just a touch, he glanced at the man in the hall, who stood timidly at the top of the stairs with his eyes low. “What's your name?” he demanded, his voice stifled by the lip of his mug.
The man looked up, a flicker of relief flashing across his sweaty visage. “Oh, it's Jerome. Jerome Klein.” He held out his thick, pink hand to shake.
Ulrich slurped up more coffee and glared at the man's hand narrowly. Then, looking him in the eyes, which were still cloudy with fright, Ulrich opened the door a bit further and retreated into his office, turning down the boombox. “Come in,” he said, sighing.
This man is going to ask you to run some trivial errand. To track down his dog, to spy on his cheating wife. Be that as it may, he thought, looking to the now-empty tin of coffee on his desk, these are dire circumstances. As he dropped into his chair, the lumpy seat shifting beneath him, he motioned to his visitor to close the door and then reclined, mug in hand.
Jerome ambled towards the desk awkwardly, glancing around the room like he expected to be offered a seat. There was no seat to be found, however. The investigator's faded office chair was the only seat in the office. He was to stand before Ulrich's desk as though awaiting judgement, and twitched nervously all the while like an insect skirting a hungry spider's web. Palming at his forehead, he gave a quick bob of his head. “T-thanks for seeing me.”
Sniffing at his cup, Ulrich pursed his lips. He didn't like the look of this man, Jerome, his nervous demeanor proving most agitating. Gritting his teeth, he resolved to consider his case anyway. Just do it for the beans, goddammit. “All right, Mr. Klein,” began Ulrich, taking a pen from his top drawer and tearing away a sheet of paper from the nearest legal pad. “I'm a very busy man,” he lied. “But let's see if I can't fit your case in. What can I do for you this fine morning?”
Burying his hands in the pockets of his slacks, the man leaned forward. “I, uh... I need you to find someone for me.”
Ulrich arched a brow. “Missing person?”
A missing person's case? It'd been a long time since he'd had one of those fall into his lap. Something like real excitement stirred in him; a bit premature, maybe, but the investigator was interested at least in hearing the details. Rapping a staccato beat against the desk with his pen, he gave a nod. “Go on.”