Letters of Departure

Daniel Fagen was trapped in the limbo world between wakefulness and sleep. Cheap rose perfume mingled with expensive Chanel in a putrid cocktail of memories that stung Fagen’s nose and turned his blood cold. Fagen had fallen asleep on the couch in his living room as an old man, but sat nonplussed in his favourite bar 45 years old again. Behind the counter he saw the plump red-head he bedded after every drinking binge, and next to her, his dead wife. The two laughed and spoke happily; it unsettled him to see his wife and mistress together as if they had been long-time friends.
Fagen’s daughter was seated at the table across from him; her mouth twisted into a petulant smile.
Fagen stared at her a while. He had nothing to say to his daughter, not in dreams or in life. Greta kept her eyes on him as she rose from her seat, and then went to join her mother at the bar.
He looked down at the table; a blank name tag was stuck to the lapel of his shirt. When he looked up again he was staring at the ceiling in his living room.
Fagen’s heart sat heavy in his chest; panicked disquiet rolled him from the couch and he lurched into his private study, unsteady on legs heavy with sleep and age. He flipped the desk lamp on, pulled an envelope from a drawer and proceeded to write the letter he should have sent years ago.

 

 

Quinn had been driving his rented car back and forth across the country for some weeks now. There had only been whisperings of Greta’s whereabouts, and now after nearly two months of driving and questioning and spending more of Fagen’s money than he had earned in the past twelve years, he was on the way back to Durban in the hopes that the tip from a friend of Greta’s would finally reveal the woman. It was nearing four in the afternoon, and the skinny wraith of a woman who had hailed his car down off the highway was still fast asleep.

The young woman looked barely older than 24. Rain-drenched and miserable, her dark hair clung in strands to her thin face. She had hopped into the car in a flurry of arms and rain and smelly clothes, introduced herself as Katherine, preferring to be called Kitty, and then had promptly fell asleep. They couldn’t have been driving for more than twenty minutes before the vagrant was drooling saliva thick with the consistency of the underfed. Quinn caught a glimpse of dull brown eyes before they disappeared behind puffy pink eyelids; clearly she’d been crying. They drove in silence for several hours allowing the girl to sleep like the dead, the radio crackling like leaves underfoot. When she woke, she ate like a starved animal, wolfing down the packed food Quinn offered her.

She’d been asleep for hours, and starved by the looks of it. Quinn asked her why she’d been out on the road in the puring rain on her own.
Kitty, to Quinn’s amusements, was extremely talkative and animated once roused from her stupor. She laughed with her entire body, especially her eyes, which Quinn had misjudged by the light of misfortune. Bright and shining, they flashed as she spoke.
She was looking for an escape, she said, any city, province or job that would take her. Kitty’s arms flailed about in wild gestures as she spoke. Her drying hair began to frizz up around her face.
“Jon and I lived in Cape Town together for a while. He was extremely possessive”, she said, her eyes fixed maniacally on the road ahead, “terrified that I would cheat on him. He gave me a black eye every time I forgot how much I owed him. And you’d be surprised how many eyes one girl has. Enough to keep you blind for a pretty long time! All my friends told me to leave him – he wouldn’t let me work or study…But one day he hit my sister… His back was turned to me and I remember just standing there and -” Kitty whipped her head to look at Quinn intently, those manic, flashing eyes now fixed right on him. “And, you know when you just – you just lose it? Well I lost it. I picked up the nearest thing and smashed it over his head”. She grinned and slapped the arms that had risen gradually in wild gesticulations down into her lap, “It happened to be lamp. I can still see the shard sticking out of him… it was kind of funny actually. Might have made some kind of art-nouveaux fixture in some weird gallery or something”. She nibbled on her thumbnail and then quickly wiped it on her shirt.
“Anyway”, she shrugged and turned to sit straight in her seat again, “here I am!” She looked at Quinn again, beaming. “So what do we do now?”

She continued to look expectantly at him, and Quinn realised then that he had picked up a permanent companion. Quinn couldn’t deny that he had been in want of some company and who better than a young runaway with nothing to head for. Quinn found himself telling Kitty everything.

Fagen had been a horrible old man, he told Kitty, a grump who might as well have already been dead for the life he led. No friends, a dead wife and a healthy case of denial. Quinn was hired by Fagen’s maid to care for the old man when he had become too weak to do it on his own. So at age 25 Quinn was washing faecal matter off an 80 year old man and wiping dribble from his quivering chin, hoping against hope that their shared name did not have some ominous presentiment for Quinn’s future. Quinn had worked for Fagen for 12 years, until he disappeared one day. Fagen had turned up to work as usual, and instead of the cynical, scathing old man, he found an envelope in his place.
“Two letters; one for me and one for his daughter, plus a check for near on fifty grand. Oh, and the kicker, he wrote himself an obituary and asked me to post it to the newspaper. It came out a couple of months back. That was probably the most humble I’ve ever seen the old guy.” Quinn smiled to himself.
“He made sure I didn’t run off with the cash though, senile old bastard didn’t trust a soul. I thought I had been earning a slave’s pittance working for him, but turns out he’s been keeping half of my salary in a savings account until my contract was up. Maybe it was to see whether my work was worth the wage, or maybe he’d been planning to leave me with this quest from the day he hired me. In any case, whether my employment was up or not, he made it clear that I won’t see that other half until Greta gets her money and her letter. It wouldn’t surprise me. He liked to leave me with the hard work; he smirked for twelve years while I wiped his ass and I’d be willing to bet my life on the fact the he could probably do it himself for about six of them, he just liked to watch me suffer”.
By now Kitty had propped her feet up on the dashboard and was leaning with her head cradled in the taut loop of the seatbelt, quite comfortable. He gestured for Kitty to pass the lighter he kept in the cubbyhole. He offered her a cigarette. They each lit theirs, Quinn steering the car with his knees as he cupped the flame against the wind howling in from the window.
“He sounds awful. Why’d you stay on with him?” Kitty asked, brushing hair off her face.
Quinn shrugged. “The old man knew I didn’t like him and he liked me even less, but I was well read and mildly intelligent; I seemed to keep him entertained. Plus, I doubt he could have found someone else as broke and desperate as I was at the time to take on the job. Every single part of me just wants to burn the damn letter and go home, but it was his last, disappearing wish I guess. So, here I am; chasing girls that don’t want to be found so I can get money from a dead man”.

“Mmmm”, she hummed, taking a deep drag of her cigarette. “So you didn’t read Greta’s letter?” she asked, “I don’t think I would have had the restraint.”
“Nope. Wasn’t my letter to read.”
“Do you have any idea what you’re even looking for?”
Quinn adjusted himself slightly in his seat, his cigarette hand hanging just outside of the window. “Well, yes and no. I found an old schoolmate of Greta’s in George, a girl called Alice. Alice seems to think Greta may be in Durban – Greta sent her a letter about a year ago.”
Kitty stared out of the window, and Quinn had begun to wonder if she was even listening to his story anymore.
“Durban…” Kitty’s voice trailed off. She turned to look at Quinn again, and suddenly became very excited. “It’s like a detective story! So, who’s the culprit behind Greta’s disappearance; a big bad husband?” Kitty drew her feet up onto the seat and hugged her knees. She looked like a kid at story time.
Quinn smiled at her enthusiasm. It had been a lonely two months; if he was going to be chasing ghosts he might as well have some fun.

“Well, subject A – the big bad husband. From what I’ve gathered from Alice, he was a selfish layabout, looking to get at the Fagen fortune. A drunk, not unlike old Fagen himself, but this man was an abusive oaf. Greta hated her father and wanted nothing to do with him or his money after her mother died and -” Quinn paused a moment, feeling himself come down with a sudden and serious case of realization. “It’s just struck me, Fagen used to tell me this stuff when he was wasted; sometimes he’d get me to write it down and then make me spend hours editing and organizing his memories. Told me the little titbits would be important when…” Quinn grew quiet again, remembering afternoons and evenings spent by Fagen’s bedside as he drunkenly recalled his life. Quinn remembered thinking that the Fagen he was writing about might have been someone he would have wanted to know, until Fagen would slap him on his head and ask him if he was listening, or whether he should get someone semi-literate to work for him instead. “Anyway, when Greta’s husband finally understood that he wouldn’t be touching any of Fagen’s money he sent their two girls off to some relative in Durban, and the two of them moved to Cape Town,” Quinn said. “But I never got a name or I would have started the case with him”.

“What about the kids? Maybe the way to find Greta is to find the kids?” Kitty suggested. There was a note of apprehension in her voice.
“I considered it, but I don’t know their names and neither did Fagen nor Alice. Greta never talked about her old life with the friends she’d made in Cape Town. But apparently two girls, about 10 years apart in age”, Quinn said. He looked at Kitty expectantly, waiting for her to carry on with their new game, but she remained silent for a while. It was the kind of silence that shouldn’t be interrupted either.

They travelled in silence for a good 5 or 6 hours, until Quinn’s back began to ache and his lids began to droop uncontrollably over his eyes. It was closing in on 8pm when he pulled off into a well-lit petrol station. He looked over at Kitty and decided not to wake her; she had been fast asleep for hours and ­­­­­­could probably do with all the rest she could get.

Quinn was woken by the morning sun streaming in through the car windows and the steady hum of cars pulling into the station to refill their tanks. His watch read 6am, which meant nearly a good twelve hours of sleep though his sighing body suggested he needed more. He looked to his left; Kitty still appeared to be asleep, buried underneath a bundle of jackets and blankets she had pulled from his bag on the backseat. Quinn stepped out of the car, stretched and then limbered stiffly to the small boutique and ordered two coffees. While he waited for the drinks he sat himself down on the curb near the shop door and lit a cigarette. He was exhausted; they were still a good 14 hours away from Durban, though his new travelling companion made the journey seem a touch brighter. He wondered if the two of them would crack the case today; the case of the cash and the missing daughter. Quinn smiled. When the coffees were ready he snubbed out his cigarette and padded back to the car to rouse the sleeping Kitty.

He thought the opening and slamming of the car door would do it, but when the bundle of blankets failed to stir, he patted it softly. When she still didn’t emerge from her woollen cocoon, he pushed the bundle of clothes aside and saw nothing but his own empty car seat.
At first he didn’t react at all; he simply stared at the seat blinking stupidly. His heart sank. Of course she stole it. You don’t invite a homeless girl into your car, tell her you’re carrying an envelope worth a fortune and still expect it and her to be there in the morning.
But they had gotten along so well, Quinn wouldn’t let himself believe it of her. He had to find it. He never panicked, but now he acted like a mad man, forgetting the boiling coffee in his hands and sending the contents of his car flying out of the doors in the grotesquely animated style one might find in ancient children’s cartoons whose creators were long dead. There was no sign of Fagen’s letter. The filthy vagrant! Quinn nearly wanted to cry. Fagen had trusted him; a man’s dying wish, even if he wasn’t one hundred percent dead, deserved to be fulfilled – even if he was the picture of depravity.
To add insult to injury, it took nearly ten minutes for Quinn to get the car started; it had been freezing the night before. When the car eventually lurched forwards, a sealed envelope slid off the dashboard right into Quinn’s lap. He couldn’t believe he had missed, and could further scarcely let himself believe that it could be Fagen’s envelope. But it was, along with another written in the hasty girlish scrawl of a message left in the secrecy of night. Again he had been walked out on and left with nothing but a letter.
Quinn skimmed the letter; his practiced eyes taking in every word. His heart rose up into his throat and settled back down into his chest; he didn’t quite know what to make it.
Kitty claimed to be Greta’s eldest daughter, and said she was on her way to Durban in search of her grandfather – to beg him to send her younger sister money to pay the price for years of neglect. She remarked on what a fortuitous coincidence it had been in running into Quinn, and apologised sincerely for not telling him who she was in person. Although he was furious and perhaps more perplexed now than anything else, a semblance of logic and rationality still existed within his brain and Quinn thought he understood the reason she had not done just that; would he really have believed a runaway he picked up off the highway if she had claimed to be Fagen’s heir and entitled to his fortune? Kitty said she would be able to look after herself, but it was her sister she worried about. Leah was only 13 years old, and living with an aunt who could barely afford the expenses of one. Kitty begged him to trust her, to help Leah. The last line of her letter left two addresses; one for Greta and one for Kitty. She encouraged Fagen to seek Greta out, and said she would be at her apartment by the end of the week if he decided to trust her.

The address for Greta was in Durban. It was another entire’s day driving before Quinn arrived back in the city; a drive that sent Quinn reeling to and fro between guilt, anger, shame, pity and more often than not the overarching sense of pure indifference. He was tired of this whole situation; tired of running into dead ends at every turn eventually simply resigned himself to defeat. He thought that he had laid the matter to rest in his mind; he would simply mail the letter and the check to the address Kitty had given him. Then he would be done with this whole business and would be freed from his involuntary contract with a ghost employer. Quinn was quite pleased with this resolution, but as soon as the bright city lights loomed up over the hill at him, he knew that would not be the case.
Quinn was driven by something to finish his task; it was definitely not loyalty. Perhaps it was pure curiosity, perhaps it was the lure of money owed to him, and perhaps it was something as simple as concern for the vagabond friend he had made. He continued to think about his reasoning as he located the address on a map and followed the winding city streets by the light of the early morning. The roads and city felt eerily lonely. Quinn sat outside Greta’s black residence a full twenty minutes staring out into the night. Shadows danced in his brain; Daniel Fagen and Daniel Quinn, the evanescence of a name, a ghost employer, that wraith of a girl and this graveyard of a home. He extricated himself from the car and crunched his way through soft green grass; dead leaves and twigs crackling under worn-out boots. He passed hundreds of mothers, daughters, husbands and sons, all dead and none expecting a letter. An absurd feeling of guilt passed over him momentarily; he wished he had letters for all of those lying beneath. It took him ten minutes to find Greta, but when he did his admiration for the young runaway ruptured any feelings of doubt he had. How easy it would have been for her to simply make off with money, how easy it would have been for her to cash a check in her mother’s name and never think twice about the man who might forever live in guilt because of it. Quinn didn’t think it right to simply post Kitty the envelope. He had liked her, and even when he had thought she was a thief, he had worried about her and where she would go and what she would do. Quinn knew he had one more trip to make before he could rest easy. He left Greta’s grave behind and located Kitty’s apartment in a neighbourhood whose cracked buildings loomed in on every side and threatened to topple onto those weak enough to scare easy. He wrote “Detective seeks assistant” and his phone number onto a note and slipped it into Kitty’s post box. With that, he went home and slept with Fagen’s envelope under his pillow until Kitty called him.

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