I was organizing a birthday party for my roommate when both my lawyer and my psychiatrist called.
"Hey, Cecil, are you busy?" Dickie Stein's voice echoed over the line as if he were in the bottom of a well.
"Take me off that goddamn speaker phone, will ya?" I yelled at him as I kept stretching a skinny blue balloon.
"Sorry, man, but this is business. I'm here with Dr. Trout. You know the good doctor, I believe?" Dickie had on his adult voice.
"The pill man," I said and held the balloon to my lips.
"Cecil, how you doing?" I heard the doctor's professionally calming voice above the rustling of paper.
I took the balloon out from between my lips. "Do you mean 'How you doing?' like am I witnessing alien abductions? Or do you mean 'How am I doing?'"
"Start wherever you like. But don't work too hard on your story. I won't prescribe you any more drugs."
"Damn the bad luck." I stretched the blue balloon, trying to loosen its skin. My memory lingered on the comical little buzz I used to get by abusing the tranquilizers Dr. Trout prescribed. I cradled the receiver on my shoulder and kept talking. "Basically I'm fine. Other than the fact that I'm nearly indigent and I find sobriety to be a tedious bore."
"Glad to hear it," my shrink chirped.
"Hey, I need the services of a private investigator, Cecil." Dickie's voice cut in out of nowhere. "Are you free?"
"Just let me look at my calendar," I said and tried unsuccessfully to blow up the party balloon. My face turned red, my eyes hurt, and the balloon was still a rigid blue spike. I spoke back into the phone. "I'm completely yours. What do you have?"
"It's going to be a murder case." He paused and I could hear a sheaf of papers fall off his desk. Dickie generally believed in a composting style of office management. "You know William Flynn. Right?"
My stomach tightened. I knew William Flynn. I was in my forties but William Flynn had always been an old man, as far as I knew. He had lived with his brother in a remote anchorage to the southwest of Glacier Bay. William and his brother Tommy were fisherman and hunters who rarely made it to town. They were eccentrics of the cranky and opinionated sort you run into all over the North. I didn't know the Flynn brothers well, but had anchored in their cove one entire commercial fishing season the year I was trying to earn my college tuition. They were strange seditionists, as I remember. William would lure me to shore with hot meals and books from eastern Europe and Asia while Tommy would blister me with his opinions about the abuses of the ruling class. Tommy was gone now. I didn't remember when he had died, only that William turned up on the streets of Sitka sometime in the eighties and I would run into him walking through the gardens of the Pioneers' Retirement Home nodding and inspecting the flowers as if he were a collector at a rare art sale.
"Yeah. I know William Flynn," I told my lawyer.
Dickie's voice faded in and out. I imagined him picking up the file from the floor where I could also imagine the pizza box and the moldy cartons from Chinese take-out.
"Okay," Dickie blurted and his voice settled back into focus. "You probably know this stuff, Cecil, but I'll cover it all so we will all be reading off the same sheet of music." Dickie was at his most irritating when he tried acting like a real lawyer. It was just one of the ways that Harvard Law School had scarred him.
"Angela Ramirez is shot to death by a thirty-eight caliber handgun while in the hotel bathtub. The police respond. Witnesses see William Flynn walking unsteadily across the street back toward the Pioneers' Home where he lives. The police find an antique thirty-eight-caliber revolver that appears to have been recently fired. The gun's been sent out for tests. The old man makes statements. Garbled stuff. He says Angela was going to leave him and he couldn't stand it. He says something about castration. I can't make much sense of it but he acts like he is covering for his brother Tommy, but as you know Tommy's been dead some eight years now. It's real nutty stuff, Cecil. But that's okay because Flynn's statement is suppressible."
"That's the good news? What do you need from me?"
"Well, Cecil..." my psychiatrist's voice came cutting through, "Dickie has asked me to evaluate Mr. Flynn's competency to stand trial. And I've been doing just that ..." There was a pause in the line; no papers rattled.
"So, is he nuts or not?" I asked as I reached for a pink balloon.
"Let me get back to that..." My doctor was almost whispering now. "William is ninety-seven years old. He can walk short distances, but uses a wheelchair in the home. It's my understanding the DA's won't go to the trouble of charging him if he is not competent. It's a complex case so I'm going to keep my opinion to myself as long as the investigation continues, and as long as William Flynn remains a suspect."
"Okay...Again, what do you need from me?" I asked, beginning to feel a little jacked around by the professionals.
"Well..." he drawled out, "Mr. Flynn wants you to kill someone." The doctor's voice said it calmly.
"Really?" I stopped stretching the pink balloon.
"Actually, yes." He was speaking softly now so I could barely make out his words. "And the funny thing...Oh, not funny really...but the interesting thing is I think it could possibly help his legal situation. I know that sounds absurd--"
"What do you think, Dickie?" I cut Doctor Trout off before he sank deeper into his moral qualms. There would be enough time for those once we both started billing hours on the case.
"It's wacky stuff, Cecil," Dickie said. "But old Flynn seems to be talking about a possible witness to Angela Ramirez's killing."
"And the fact that he wants me to murder a witness to this woman's killing is good news? Isn't that a little optimistic?"
"Just go down and talk to Flynn, Cecil. Get a line on this guy. You have personal experience with this stuff." Dickie sounded happy.
"Which--insanity or tampering with a witness?" I tried the balloon again and my sinuses felt as if they were tearing.
"Both," Dickie said. "Just meet the doc down at the home and talk to Mr. Flynn, okay?"
"Give me a couple of minutes to blow up this balloon," I said cheerfully.
"Fine...fine," my lawyer muttered and the line went dead.
Excerpted from Death and the Language of Happiness by John Straley. Copyright © 1998 by John Straley. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.