The Clickbait Always Loads Twice: A Digital Noir | Chapter 1
Tuesday morning was cold like a good stainless-steel whiskey stone and had a bite to it like a good whiskey.
I ducked into my trench coat collar, my one defense against the relentless gusts trilling a banshee chorus, as I braved the blistering trek from Altima door to strip-mall storefront. My coffee, goth-black, jostled perilously within its paper grail, slowing my pace and supplying today’s sole reminder of the concept of warmth.
For the third time, I was greeted by the leer of the new vinyl decal on my glass door. The slick, sleazy visual, a painfully hip pro-bono lockup by my indefatigable sister-in-law-to-be (the one attending SCAD for Printmaking) hissed “Taggart and Solomon’s Digital Detective Agency” in mauve and verdant yellow. It sucked.
For the third time, I squinted and tried to like it. For the third time, I failed.
Mauricia was already at her desk, fingers clacking away at some administrative drudgery, no doubt, evoking a maturity that would have restored my faith in high school interns had I ever believed. I slung my coat on the cast iron rack, sipped my coffee, recoiled from its petroleum bouquet with appropriate violence, and dropped the whole tragedy into the coffee-stained swivel-top garbage can by the water cooler. Gas stations. I never learned, did I?
Either the precipitous cup-drop or my subsequent profanity had given Mauricia pause. She glanced up, alert as a hare.
“Morning, Mauricia,” I said. “Also, sorry about that.”
“Good morning, Mr. Taggart,” she chirped back. I’d been trying to get her to call me Dom, but apparently homeschool habits die hard – her words, not mine. “No new online appointments overnight, but you have three site visits, one in-office, and one Facetime today. I’ve updated and synced the Bizlist. There’s also an interview request on your Instagram to which I’ve drafted a preliminary response.”
“On Instagram, Mr. Taggart? Do they ever?”
“Slow down, kid,” I said. “You go cynical, there goes all hope for humanity.” I looked at the dark corner closet-cum-office and frowned. “Where’s Jake?”
“Oh, yes! Ms. Solomon wanted me to remind you Mr. Kelliher has jury duty today,” Mauricia said. “He submitted preliminary research on the McMerriman case at seven last night. I’m actually proofing the executive summary right now. You’ll find the rest on the Dropbox.”
“Mauricia.” I gave my best impression of a concerned look. “Jake is three years and four months older than you. You can call him ‘Jake.’”
“He’s still my superior, Mr. Taggart,” Mauricia replied with a winning smile.
My hands flew up in surrender. “In title only, kid.”
I pulled up the Securilok app and punched today’s PIN into the chic little blinking thing next to my office door, then cracked open the portal to another day of saving the g█████ world.
It was around 7:40 when I had a thought. I picked up the phone and dialed.
“Yes, Mr. Taggart?”
“Hey, honest opinion.”
“The only kind I’ve got, Mr. Taggart.”
“Worth a check. Mauricia, that logo on my door. Jessa’s...gift.”
There was a pause. “You’re asking what I think of it?”
“Yes, I suppose I am. What do you think of that logo?”
Also, that name? I thought. But, you know, pick your battles.
Another pause. Suspense tingled like the spectre of a Listerine strip.
“It’s not my favorite design, Mr. Taggart,” Mauricia offered at last, slowly and conspiratorially, as though to avoid the cosmic crime of Vocalizing Negative Things. “I think it’s the, um, colors.”
“It’s everything,” I said. “Thanks, Mauricia.”
I scribbled this new intel on a stray Post-It, sparing no ammunition for my eventual confrontation with Damien.
Parv clocked in at 8:02 exactly again, confirming some new morning ritual. She had a way of being precise about her lateness in a way that elevated her above reproach to something just shy of admirable.
Mauricia said, “Good morning, Ms. Solomon,” and was in the middle of Parv’s morning rundown when my phone vibrated, aborting my casual eavesdropping. On screen: Damien Taggart, Esq.
Aw, f██. Not even nine and already a martyr, I made the tactile gesture for “pick up” that would ruin my morning, tapped the “Speaker” icon, and lowered the volume to 50%.
“Taggart and Solomon’s Digital Detective Agency, this is Dominic Taggart!” I said – nay, shouted.
“DOMINIC!” crackled the return, also a shout. Behind it, beepy electro-noises indicated some kind of busy thoroughfare, because, of course, why would Damien ever call me from his office? Or the interior of a building? “HEY, BRO.”
“What’s going on, man!” Also, why did we always shout on the phone, this family?
“HEY, QUICK QUESTION FOR YOU!”
“I’m all ears!” I blamed Grandpa Pesci and his hearing defect. Hereditary or not, it established a precedent for years of familial discourse, particularly of the remote variety.
“LISTEN, OKAY, JESSA’S GOT THIS GALA SHE’S DOING THIS BIG THING FOR, AND THERE’S SOME FISHY STUFF GOING ON WITH THE ORG THAT’S DOING THE GALA, AND I THOUGHT YOU COULD HELP HER OUT WITH IT IF YOU GUYS GOT THE TIME!”
Big thing? Fishy stuff? “Uh. Any specifics?”
“YEAH, YEAH! I’LL SEND YOU THE SPECIFICS IN AN EMAIL AS SOON AS I GET TO THE OFFICE! YOU GUYS IN?”
I scribbled another Post-It: check for email from Damien by lunchtime. Then, on a whim, I added a small E, underscore, small E. “e_e”. A quaint eyeroll emoticon. My favorite.
“Alright, buddy! We’ll work something out, okay?”
“GREAT! GREAT! THIS IS WHY THEY PAY YOU THE BIG BUCKS, HA HA! CAN’T THANK YOU ENOUGH. SHE’LL BE PSYCHED.” And then, because fate is a cruel mistress: “HEY, HOW ARE YOU GUYS LIKING THE NEW LOGO?”
I had more answers than time or energy for this. “Cool, man! Hey, you’re breaking up. I’ll just get back to you when I get that email, alright! Take care!”
My finger hit the red icon like I was pulling a trigger. The post-hangup screen blinked to life like a digital sigh of relief.
Parv didn’t even look up. “Hey, Dom. Family call, huh?”
I was standing in the door to her office on my way to make some actual coffee. Parv, perched in her steel-leather chair, looked like she was fixing something about her hair in the reflection of her blank iMac screen. The impeccable neatness of her setup made me feel something akin to shame.
“Clear your schedule,” I said. “Jessa’s got this big thing and some fishy stuff.”
“Jessa.” Parv groaned. “You know how some people are just – you know they’re going to be a handful and nothing is ever just normal with them? I definitely said it, that one. Written all over her face from the moment Damien brought her artsy little boho a██ up in here.”
“Language,” I said.
“Sorry, sorry. I figured it’s just us,” Parv said, lowering her voice, then – “Hold on. Are you saying the Big Guy’s not cool with ‘a██’?”
“Couldn't tell you. I didn’t ask for the entire blacklist!”
“Type it in,” Parv commanded.
I stared. “You’re literally the one sitting at your computer.”
“It’s not on yet, genius.”
“Check when it is, then,” I said. “I’m not getting SwearJar’d so you can test the limits of our Generous Benefactor's morality clause.”
“Freaking SwearJar,” Parv said. “If you ask me, that is some unconstitutional bulldog doodoo. Straight up language detection software, in a detective agency, for Chr...crying out loud? I mean, how is that even remotely legal?”
It was a rhetorical question, but I found myself needing to resist another paragraph of tired exposition. We’d gone over this before.
“I started doing this subconscious self-censoring thing,” I offered. “Practice visualizing the words like they’re physically blacked out and you stop thinking of them as words at all. For the most part.” I winced, recalling the coffee epithets from earlier. “Anyway. Listen. We can’t rack up too many more SwearJar hits this month. I’m this close to paying off the condo.”
“Yours or your ex’s?” Parv said.
“Oh, go to heck.”
9:50 brought our first client in, windblown and frantic, wrapped in a tight overcoat and the harried apologetic look of self-aware flotsam, unwilling to beach. She was conventionally pretty and unconventionally nervous. She clutched a rain-dotted tangerine bag with fidgeting salmon-gloved fingers.
“Madeleine Treacher for your ten a.m.,” came Mauricia’s voice over the intercom.
No sooner had Parv and I exited our respective offices than Madeleine Treacher, steadying herself till that moment against Mauricia’s desk, let out a sudden gasp and crumpled to the floor like discarded origami.