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The Case of the Pickled Herring
 by Dashweld Hamlet

  My name is Shovel.  Clem Shovel.  My friends call me Razor.
  I used to be a cop. After fifteen years on the force, the mayor of my town, Portland, Oregon, a butch named Verna Klutz, hired a new Police Chief named Sybil.  She said I needed to get rid of my trenchcoat and wear Dockers, a black turtleneck and tassel-loafers.  I told her to take a long walk off a short pier.  That's why I used to be a cop.  Now, I'm a private dick.  My office is just above La Belle Aurore, on 2nd street, south of the Goodwill.  It's one of those sleazy neighborhoods being targeted for gentrification.  You know the type.  Architects designing brand new classic french bakery shoppe restaurants with arched brick doorways where former advertising executives drink MD2020 after closing time and pass out against the wrought-iron entry gate. 

   When she walked into my office, I smelled liberal.  She said her name was Persephone Fouler. Her money was American.  She could call herself Steve  for all I cared.  The job was to locate a missing friend who she had worked with.  A guy named Hassle Herring.  A fishy name if I ever heard one.  She was one of those society dames, slim, dark-haired. A climber.  I took the five hundred bucks and told her I'd call when I got something.
   When you're a private dick, the only thing you believe is the money, but you've got to start somewhere, so I checked missing persons.  Nobody had ever heard of anybody with the name Hassle Herring.  Fouler had said he had been a newspaper editor somewhere down the Willamette Valley, so I made a few calls to some newspaper guys I know.  One of them, Flash Harte, works for Portland's biggest rag, the Oregonian.  He knew about Herring.

   We met at the Goose Hollow, a worn, used-furniture kind of saloon that had been a hangout for hippies in the Sixties.  The propietor, Whoop-Whoop Clarke, had earned local standing by exposing himself to a famous statue of a Greek goddess. He became Portland's next mayor.  After a couple of terms, he felt the need for reality and left politics.  For the past thirty years, the sound system had been stuck on a hillbilly rendition of "Demon Alcohol."  Nobody cares in a place like that.  They're not there for the art.
   Harte said that Herring was a lefty journalist whose hobby was Nordic cuisine, and who had made some kind of big mistake, and disappeared suddenly.  He was a Circassian Arab from some place called Al Geewhiz in one of those desert emirates on the Red Sea.  I figured the fat man would know something about that, so I went to see him, next.  The fat man runs the Blue Parrot, a dive on  the north side of Burnside east of Chinatown.  He wears a fez and looks a jolly sort, but he has his fleshy paws in a lot of dirty business.

   "I have never heard of this Hassle Herring," he said, swatting a fly on the table.  The revolving fan above us blew part of the fly onto the floor.
   "You're a fat hypocrite," I said.  "How about twenty bucks?"
   "My memory seems to have improved," he said, chuckling. He slipped the bill off the table and into his pocket faster than Houdini. "He was a newspaper editor in Albany, Oregon, for  many years.  He became something of a media star when he was made a regular panelist on the public broadcasting program, Seven Days.  Then, as the story goes, he made a mistake."
   "A mistake," I said.  Harte had been right.
   "A serious one," said the fat man.
   "Are there any other kind?" I asked.
   "Not in this part of Oregon," said the fat man, swatting another fly.

   That was all my twenty bucks was worth.  I decided to dig in that direction. Albany is forty or fifty miles south of Portland.  It's a former mill town where newsprint was made, and smells a bit like Old Spice aftershave that's gone bad.  I got nothing from Herring's old newspaper, the Democrat-Herald.  They said he had headed north to Portland for an appearance on Seven Days and simply never came back.  His landlord said that some guy who smelled like gardenias had come to ask about Herring.  He had a badge the landlord didn't recognize. He had cleaned out Herring's apartment, and that was that.
   Dead ends happen a lot in my business.  The answers mostly come from people.  I put the word out.  Two nights later I was working late when there was a knock on my office door.  I could smell the little darling before I opened the door.
   Gardenia cologne.

   He stepped inside and pulled a gun on me. 
   "I want the black bird," he said.  I took the gun, a short-barreled .38, then slapped him across the face several times. 
   "It's not a black bird," I said.  "It's a Red Sea fish."
   "Of course," he said.  "I did not wish to give you information which you might not have.  May I sit down?"
   I waved him to a chair, then dumped the shells from the gun and gave it back to him.  "What's your interest in Herring?" I said.
   "Why should I tell you anything?" he asked, his round, soft face and round black eyes as empty of guilt as the man in the moon.
   "Because my gun is still loaded," I replied.
   "Yes, but how do I know you would use it?" he said.
   "You would figure that out sometime after I started punching your face in," I said.

   The next afternoon, I sat at my desk, two floors above the street.  Down below on the sidewalk a drunk ex-advertising illustrator was arguing with a longshoreman about graphic design  As far as I could tell, the investigation was going nowhere fast.  Mr. Gardenia hadn't told me anything I could use.  He claimed to be a former associate of Herring's.  They had been working on a deal to turn carp into pink lutefisk and market it to gay Norwegians when Herring had disappeared. Gardenia said he was worried about his partner.  It was probably a pack of lies, but even if it wasn't, I had no way of knowing what was true and what wasn't.. 
   There was definitely something rotten in Spitzbergen.
   That's when it hit me.  With a grin of stone on my hard-bitten, square-jawed face, I made a series of phone calls.  By the time I had finished the third one, I knew I was on to something.
   The problem with my idea was that I didn't have a good reason to take the next step.  The next morning, when they fished Herring's body from the Willamette, I had my reason.

   The most dangerous man in Portland is MacNeil Goldspit.  He has his fingers in every pie being baked from Portland to the California border.  Like most men who run large, mostly invisible empires, he had strong ties to Democrats.  Union bosses with shady connections, politicians who front for the tri-county shadow government, urban renewal construction projects -- all sway in the direction Goldspit points. 
   I knew him from the early days, when he was a small time hustler working his way up as an enforcer for the Oregon Bar Association.  In time they gave him the ultimate test by installing him as the state's governor.  Having passed that test, he moved up to positions of real power and eventually reached the very top.  He now runs the entire state. 
   He owed me a couple of favors.  It is better to have men like that owing you one.  Cashing in debts like that can leave you vulnerable.  But, I had no choice.

   When I walked into his huge 40th floor office overlooking the river, he glanced up and smiled.  Cobras have friendlier smiles.
   "Clem Shovel," he said softly.  "It 's been a long time."
   "A long time," I agreed, walking the thirty feet to his chrome and glass desk.  He got up to shake my hand.  When we touched palms, there was an electric discharge.  It was from the half acre of carpet I'd crossed but it felt like a contact that gave him all the data in my brain.  The man is scary.
   He sat down and waved me to a chair.  "What can I do for you, Razor?" he asked in that soft, modulated voice.  Every word reeked of danger..
   "I need to know something," I said.
   "Anything," he said softly, with a faint cold smile.  "Ask."
   "Did you do Hassle Herring?"
   It was incredible.  He didn't even blink.  "No," he answered softly.
   "Do you know who did?"  I continued.
   "Yes," he said.
   "I won't ask for the name," I said.  "What I want to know is if it had anything to do with that mistake he made."
   "I believe it did, Razor.  It has been good to see you, again.  Don't be such a stranger in the future."
   I got up, shook his ice cold hand again and got the hell out of there.

   The next step was simple.
   I bought a videotape copy of the past ten Seven Days programs and studied them.  I found what I was looking for in the June 7, 2002 show.  I found the mistake. I called Persephone Fouler and told her we needed to have a talk.
   Fifteen minutes later I was standing at the window, watching a drunk ex-advertising copywriter mumbling to himself as he guzzled his fortified wine while sitting on the fender of a Porsche.  She walked past him, then crossed the street in my direction.  I continued to watch.  Gardenia was following her, just as I expected.  When she knocked on my office door, I opened it quickly and pulled her inside.  The hall was empty, but the elevator made a dinging sound.  I closed the door and put my finger to her lips.
   Gardenia's shape was visible as he stood on the other side of the scalloped glass of the office door window.  Suddenly, the handle twisted and he lunged inside, his gun out.  I slapped it from his hand and popped him in the jaw.  He went down like a stone.

   He woke up ten minutes later when Fouler poured a cup of water over his head.  He moaned, then his eyes focused.  There was hate in them.
   "What did you do that for?" he said in his nasal voice.
   "Shut up," I said.  "Miss Fouler, have you seen this man anywhere before?"
   "I don't know," she said.
   "You're lying," I growled.
   She started to sniffle.  A tear ran down her cheek.
   "You're good," I said, grinning.  "You're very good.  I think I like the way you use your eyes when you do it.  It's an effective touch."
   "I'm sorry," she said.  "I'm such a liar."
   I laughed out loud.  "Now," I said, "you are dangerious."
   "I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," she said.

   "Listen you two," I said, going to my desk and picking up the phone.  "I'm dialing the cops right now.  They'll be here in ten minutes.  When they get here, I'm going to give them one of you or both.  So, you better give me straight answers now, or you're both going down for the murder of Hassle Herring."
   "You wouldn't," she said.
   "I won't like it," I said, "but I will."  I dialed the number and told the desk sargeant to send some troops.  When Gardenia started to get up, I pulled out my piece.  He sat down, again.
   I put down the phone and said, "Well?  It's now or never."
   "She did it!" snarled Gardenia.  "She hired you to try to pin it on me."
    "Liar!" she yelled.

   "I'll decide who's the liar, here," I said.  "Now, sweetie, tell me.  Where were you on the evening of June the seventh, after Seven Days?"
   "I don't remember," she said.
   "She's lying!" cried Gardenia.  "I saw her at waterfront park with Hassle.  The Rose Festival carnival was going on.  All of a sudden all the lights went out.  When they came back on, they were both gone.  She killed him and pushed him in the river!"
   The cops came in when she attacked Gardenia.  We got them apart.  The Detective was a friend of mine from the force.  His name is Friday. 
   "What's going on here, Razor?" he asked.

   "This is Mr. Gardenia and Miss Fouler," I said.  "If you go through the files at Miss Fouler's office, you will find a patented recipe for making pink lutefisk out of carp.  Gardenia tried to buy it from Hassle Herring, who invented it, but when he couldn't, he was facing financial ruin.  Miss Fouler learned of all this from Herring, and used her contacts in the Oregon Democratic Party to steal the recipe from his safe.  Then, she used that to blackmail Gardenia. into pulling a fuse at the Rose Festival Carnival at just the right time.  She lured Herring to the park and gave him a glass of  '54 Delkin Vinyards Chateux Briand spiked with MD2020.  He was pickled by the second sip, and when the lights went out, she killed him and pushed his body in the river.  Then she told Gardenia she didn't have the lutefisk recipe.  That she'd lied about having it.  But Gardenia went down to Hassle's Albany apartment and discovered that it wasn't there.  He knew she had lied about not having it.  He went after her.  She hired me to find out who killed Herring, knowing I'd spot Gardenia sooner or later, and tie him to the crime."

   "The Oregon Democratic Party?" said Detective Friday.  "You're running with some dangerous people, Razor."
   "It's not me, Friday.  It's her."
   "Why would she want to kill Herring?" said Friday.
   "She had to," I said.  "I've got a tape of the program.  Without thinking, she said that Phil Bradbunny, the Secretary of State, had intentionally gerrymandered a voting district so as to guarantee election for a Hispanic candidate.  It would have been the seat that returned the legislature to Democrat control.  But, Hassle suddenly realized when he heard her say it that he had been a pawn of the Democrats all his life, and on the spur of the moment stood up and said that rigging voting districts to guarantee minority success was wrong!"

   Friday whistled.  "Herring said that rigging elections to guarantee minority wins was wrong?  Was the man nuts?  You don't say something like that in Oregon!"
   "Hassle did," I said.  "In a moment of sanity, he saw the truth, and made the last mistake of his life."

Text © 2002 Oregon Magazine  Graphics link to their source.