The voice on the phone was faint.
“Are you a private eye?”
“Yes,” I said. “Although we don’t call ourselves that anymore.”
“What do you call yourselves?” The voice was so faint that I had to shove my cell phone against my ear, which I always hated to do.
Outside, through my open office window, I heard a homeless man crying alone. There’s nothing sadder than the sound of a homeless man crying alone.
And just as the thought crossed my mind, I saw myself weeping over my own son’s burned body.
Yeah, there are some things sadder.
I said, “We prefer to call ourselves eavesdropping technicians.”
“No. How can I help you?”
I usually got lots of calls throughout the day. Most people spent forty minutes telling me how bad their lives were, how bad their relationships were, and how they were certain that so-and-so was cheating on them or stealing from them or screwing them somehow—only for them to tell me they’d get back to me. They generally didn’t get back to me. They generally worked out their problems themselves. And talking to me was, somehow, the catalyst. So I didn’t take most of my calls too seriously. At least, not at first.
“I know someone who needs help,” said the faint voice.
“Would that someone be you?”
“What kind of help?” I asked.
“You’re not going to believe me if I tell you.”
I nearly chuckled. Nearly. These days, I didn’t chuckle much. If at all. And if I had a nickel for every time someone told me I wouldn’t believe their story, I would have, well, a shitload of nickels. What people didn’t understand was that private investigators had heard it all before. Dozens of times.
“Try me,” I said.
“Jesus, maybe this is a bad idea. I’ll probably get fired—or worse.”
“Probably,” I said.
“That’s not very encouraging.”
“If you think you’ll get fired for telling me something—or anyone anything—then trust your instincts.”
“Good point,” said the voice.
I waited. The computer screen chose that moment to go into screensaver mode as the computer’s logo slowly bounced within the screen. I watched it idly, but my thoughts were on the side of the road, where I had been flung from the burning car so many years ago.
“Yes,” said the voice in my ear about twenty seconds later. “Yes, I’m willing to risk my job. Hell, I could even be willing to risk my life, but that could just be paranoia talking.”
“Tell me about it.”
The caller took in a lot of air, and then said, “I work at Medievaland in Orange County. Have you heard of it?”
“Jousting tournaments, eating with your hands, and waitresses dressed like wenches,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s the place.”
“Never heard of it,” I said.
The voice laughed lightly. “Anyway, we put on nightly shows. I work as a squire in the show, which means I run around in fake chainmail tights and look like an idiot.”
Now I laughed, perhaps for the first time in a long, long time.
“I know,” he said. “Ridiculous. But what the hell. A job is a job, plus I get to work around horses and I love horses. Anyway, we do this bit where we bring out a prisoner wearing an iron mask.”
“An iron mask?”
“Yeah, like in the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio.”
“Or the Alexandre Dumas novel.”
“I don’t know about the novel,” the voice said. “Anyway, I’ve worked there for two months and realized that I didn’t know who played the part of the guy wearing the iron mask. I mean, they just wheel him out, then wheel him back, and we never see who he is.”
He paused, perhaps for effect. I waited, not so much for effect. I looked at the picture of my son on the desk. My deceased son.
“I want to know who the guy in the iron mask is,” he finally said.
“Have you asked around?”
“Yes, and no one seems to know.”
“You’re right,” I said.
“Right about what?”
“I don’t believe you.”
I nearly hung up. For some reason, I paused just long enough for him to stop me. To convince me to stop. And he did.
“Wait. Hear me out.” I heard the urgency in his voice.
“Okay,” I said.
“Something’s going on,” he continued. “Something weird. No one’s talking to me. And no one seems to know who the guy in the iron mask is.”
“Probably an extra on the show,” I said, always the voice of reason.
“That’s what I figured, until I saw them wheel him away the other night.”
“Two nights ago.”
“I was backstage in the prop room grabbing another sword for my knight—the things always break. Anyway, the skit with the prisoner in the iron mask had just ended and I watched them roll him backstage. I’ll admit, my interest was piqued, if only to settle my own curiosity.”
I waited. Admittedly, my interest was piqued, too. And who said the word “piqued” these days, anyway? I thought about that as I waited.
Finally, the voice said, “The first thing I noticed was that they never took him out of the iron mask.”
“What do you mean?”
“They just kept on rolling him down a side hall, and then into one of the service tunnels, which leads to, from what I understand, a basement of sorts under the arena.”
“They never took the guy out of the mask?”
An oddly cold chill coursed through me as I processed this. “You’ve never been below the restaurant?”
“And no one else knows who the guy in the iron mask is?”
“No one. At least, not the other squires. We don’t hang out much with the knights.”
“And you tried looking into this yourself?”
“And what happened?”
“I was told that if I was ever seen near the elevator again, I would be fired.”
“So why are you calling me?” I asked.
“I want you to find out who the man in the iron mask is.”
“Why?” I asked.
This time there was a lot of silence, and I found myself shaking my head. In this business, you never knew who was going to call you. The homeless man continued weeping. In my mind’s eye, I saw my son’s burned flesh. His burned and smoking flesh.