Dirk’s short but arguably illustrious career in holistic detection had had its fair share of cases, of course, the business with the sofa and the issue with Thor being the most notable of his early years in the biz, as he insisted on calling it when Todd was being particularly difficult, but that didn’t mean he’d taken every case that came his way.
He’d always reserved the right to refuse a client, even if that meant the difference between a hostel bed and a park bench. The scruples he’d been cursed with had never done him any good, he usually reflected when sleeping on said park bench, but at least he could rest relatively easy knowing he hadn’t done anything that might be considered a net negative to the universe.
That wasn’t so often the case after the incident with the shark-cat and other related shenanigans, considering that the Agency, being at least nominally a “business”, needed money to stay afloat, but the universe had its own ideas about what Dirk should be doing which were occasionally (some even might say often) counterproductive to his and Todd’s ultimate goal of fiscal independence.
Farah could take care of herself.
However, that didn’t stop the potential clients coming in, referred to them through various shady channels usually involving a side-long glance and a bit of good old-fashioned sidling.
There’s this guy, the hypothetical man in a trenchcoat and sunglasses might say. He’s got his little ways, but he usually sorts things out in the end.
Dirk wasn’t particularly familiar with how people in those sorts of situations spoke to each other.
The hypothetical client, then firmly possessed of Dirk’s business card, or zip code, or (on one slightly worrying occasion) a strand of his hair, would turn up at the office and request a consultation.
“Good morning,” Dirk said, brightly, as he ambled into through the office door at a time he liked to consider ‘fashionably late’. No matter what time he appeared at the office, he was always just in time to make a cup of tea before a client arrived.
Todd closed the slim file he’d been scribbling on. “Morning, Dirk,” he said with a yawn. “You’re in freakishly early; did you actually sleep or were you waiting in some shady corner hoping to impress us?”
Dirk glanced at the clock. The big hand was between the 7 and the 8, and it was light outside the small window, which meant -
“I’m early?” Dirk exclaimed with a happy grin. “That must be why I’m feeling so… so refreshed and chipper!” He wasn’t feeling either refreshed or chipper, in point of fact; he’d slept fairly badly and woken with an oppressive sense of foreboding deep in his diaphragm, but that was pretty much par for the course. Nothing worth worrying Todd and Farah with, anyway.
Farah, for that matter, was off for the day on a trip to Bergsberg, visiting the sheriff’s department she was still technically deputised to. Dirk had seen Todd give her a significant look as he’d said to give Tina his best wishes. Dirk hadn’t quite known what to make of it, but Farah had ducked her head in a way that was really very endearing, so he thought it was probably for something good.
He busied himself with preparing a cuppa, electric kettle switched on and teabag ready in the mug, and just had it steeping when there was a telltale knock on the door.
Dirk sat down at his desk (his desk!!) and went about rearranging the small amount of paperwork he’d artfully strewn across it in the hopes of looking marginally more detective-y. Holistic detection didn’t generate very much paperwork at all, really, besides the occasional bill for inadvertent property damage, or the expenses forms Farah insisted they fill out.
Since she was financing them Dirk tried his best to get them all sorted, but it got a little overwhelming when the universe guided him into, for example, buying fourteen fish from twelve different pet shops.
As it was, this meant he didn’t take note of their new client(s?) until they were in his office, door shut behind them. He shrugged off his jacket - turquoise - and straightened his whale-patterned tie with a small, pleased smile.
“Good morning,” he said cheerfully, setting a fistful of receipts aside to sort through later. “How can I help?” His gaze was still trained on the desk - he was pretty sure he’d left a bus ticket somewhere on there, and it might have had a McD’s voucher on the back. Always worth checking.
“I need you to find someone,” said a startlingly familiar voice. “He has been missing a long time, but -”
Dirk looked up.
His mother was stood across the desk from him, grey streaks in her hair where there used to be red, tired lines around her eyes, mouth drawn down at the corners. In his memory, she was always smiling.
He blinked. “If you could excuse me for just a moment,” he said, as clearly as he could manage when his lungs, the traitors, stubbornly refused to expand. “Please take a seat, I would love to help you, I’ve just remembered - Todd!”
The door to the office had opened just as he stood from the desk to reveal Todd, holding a mug of what smelled like coffee in one hand and a packet of biscuits in the other.
“Oh, Mrs Cjelli,” said Todd, apparently unaware of Dirk’s inability to respire. He could practically feel his mitochondria screaming. “I got your coffee. Sorry if it’s bad, our machine is garbage.”
“You know hurting that machine’s feelings won’t do you any favours, Todd,” Dirk said, leaning heavily against the desk, arms folded, shoulders hunched. “It’s very sensitive.”
Todd rolled his eyes. “Whatever you say, Dirk. Nice meeting you, Mrs Cjelli.”
Mum nodded at him with a faint smile, the ghost of the expression Dirk saw every so often in his dreams. She turned back to him, frowning once more at his posture.
“Will you help?” She asked, setting her hands on her knees, fingers clutching at the fabric of her corduroys.
Dirk uncrossed his arms, changed his mind, recrossed them, and inhaled carefully. He wasn’t entirely certain he was awake, anymore. He pinched the skin at the meat of his upper arm.
Ow. Okay, probably not a dream.
“Who exactly do you want me to find?” Dirk asked, proud of the way he mostly kept his voice from wavering. He sounded a little like he was coming down with something, but at least he hadn’t burst into tears yet.
“My son,” said Mum - Mrs Cjelli, Dirk reminded himself firmly. “He went missing many years ago.” Her face crumpled even further, somehow, and Dirk felt his chest tighten a little more. His ribs were starting to ache.
In Blackwing, the first time round, all those countless years ago, they’d shown him a letter they said his mum had sent for him.
It hadn’t said anything worth remembering, really, a lot of anger and cruelty, but Dirk could still recall every word, could picture the yellowing paper in his mind’s eye with startling clarity. Some might have called it a ‘pivotal moment’.
Riggins had read it to him in a measured, gentle tone, something delicate in his posture that Dirk had taken for sympathy at the time, tears rolling freely down his cheeks, knees curled up to his chest. With the benefit of hindsight, looking across the desk at his mother, he realised it was almost certainly guilt.
“What was his name?” He asked, still standing, barely, voice cracking high on the last word.
“Svlad,” said the woman who was certainly his mother. “Svlad Cjelli. Do you think you can find him?”
Dirk smiled, despite himself. It didn’t feel much like a smile, but it seemed to reassure her. “I am positive.” He closed his eyes briefly, ran a hand over his face. “If you’ll excuse me for just a moment? I have to ask Todd something, it’s quite urgent.”
“Help yourself to a biscuit,” said Dirk, remembering his manners. “Back in two ticks.”
He slipped out the door, noting absently that his hand shook as he twisted the knob, and marched across to Todd’s desk. Todd was working on a piece of manuscript paper, probably doing something very technical and complicated to do with guitars.
Dirk wasn’t fully up on how music worked but he was determined to be a supportive friend; mostly this involved listening to Todd play different guitar riffs while stealing covert glances at his face, transported somewhere where Dirk assumed the sun was always shining.
Not that he told Todd about any of this. Todd didn’t hold with romanticism, Dirk had found. It was one of his favourite things about him, but it did make talking to him difficult, sometimes.
“Todd,” said Dirk, allowing himself to express a little of the panic he was feeling. “Do you realise who that is?”
Todd blinked. “Uh, Mrs Cjelli? No, she came in just after you got here, I didn’t exactly have a chance to learn her life story.” He pronounced the name ‘Shay-lee’, which was not quite right.
“Oh, I wish you would make a bit of an effort, Todd,” Dirk snapped. “No, sorry, that’s not fair at all, is it. I just mean - that’s my mum.”
“What.” The sound of Todd’s pen hitting the desk echoed much more loudly than physics ought to have allowed.
Dirk winced. “I haven’t seen her in a long time, you understand, but I’m fairly certain -”
“No, Dirk, I believe you,” said Todd, resting his head in his hands. The words came out somewhat muffled as a result, which made Dirk frown. “The pronunciation threw me off, I think. I just - not to be blunt here, but I thought you said your parents were, uh, dead?”
“Well, I thought they were! It’s not like the CIA was particularly forthcoming about the details of the situation!” Dirk was trying very hard not to shout, wildly aware of his mother sat less than ten feet away. “She wants me to find her son, Todd, meaning me.”
“Oh,” said Todd. “I mean, that’s great, right? You can tell her and you can, I don’t know, go for coffee and have a deep, meaningful, tearful reunion.”
Dirk frowned again, brought his thumb to his mouth and bit at the skin around the nail. “It’s not - Todd, not that I don’t - What if -”
He trailed off, and slumped onto the sofa opposite Todd’s workspace. Todd immediately came to sit beside him, a warm weight along Dirk’s side. He bit his thumb again.
Todd shifted slightly, turning to face him as Dirk ducked his head, still chewing.
“Is this a hunch?”
Dirk paused. There was certainly something pushing down on his ribs, making it hard to concentrate on anything else - hence the chewing - but his head felt okay, other than the weird floaty feeling. He shook his head after a moment, then took his thumb out of his mouth. “Feels different.”
Todd put a careful hand on his shoulder. Dirk felt himself relax slightly, a little of the tension in his spine bleeding out. “Have you considered the possibility that you’re just, uh, anxious? Because that would be pretty normal, I’ve gotta be honest.”
Dirk blinked. “I don’t - Maybe you have a point.” He glanced at the clock. “Shit, I should go, um, check in.” He took a deep breath. “Thanks, Todd.”
Todd looked sad. “Anytime, Dirk.”
Mrs Cjelli was still sat with her hands on her knees, looking mildly confused, when Dirk returned to the office.
“Sorry for the delay,” he said, feeling slightly less like he was going to shatter into millions of tiny, un-reconstitutable pieces. “Just had to check on something.”
“Can you find him?”
Dirk sat down, taking a moment to rest his elbows theatrically on the desk. “What happened to him?” He asked in return, bracing slightly.
“We were at the park,” said Mrs Cjelli, a faraway look on her face. “I was always telling him not to wander off, you know, but he loved to go exploring. I turned my back for just a moment and then he was - gone.” Her voice wavered; there was a telltale wetness in her eyes. Dirk wished, not for the first time, that he kept tissues in his office.
He tilted his head, remembering the smell of the grass and the wet rasp of fallen leaves. “Did you - look for him?” He didn’t remember anyone calling for him, before the sharp sting of pain and the black spots in his vision and the weightless, helpless feeling.
He’d woken up in a blue room, clouds on the ceiling. It was the closest thing to the sky he’d see for six years.
“For days - years,” said Mrs Cjelli, faraway look still firmly fixed in her eyes. “I knew that park like the back of my hand soon enough, but - it was like he vanished off the face of the Earth. I asked all kinds of people to help, and no one could do it. Now, though, my friend says you could find him. He said you are very good at finding lost things, so I hope you are good with lost people as well.”
“I’ve certainly found… some people, in my time,” said Dirk, thinking of Lydia. “Where was this?”
“London. Over… over twenty years ago now. My friend - he lives nearby, said that you could find him very quickly. Using your tricks, he said.”
“That’s true,” said Dirk, slowly. He leaned forward, meeting Mrs Cjelli’s eyes for the first time. They were the same blue he saw in the mirror, bright and clear. “Or, well, I suppose your friend could’ve said that you would find him very quickly.”
Mrs Cjelli narrowed her eyes. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Well,” said Dirk. He swallowed, dug his nails into his wrist. “There are certain, um, elements of the case that I - am familiar with. Personally.”
The silence stretched between them. There was something like hope in Mrs Cjelli’s eyes, something Dirk desperately didn’t want to extinguish. It wasn’t as if he was a particularly inspiring choice for a Return of The Prodigal Son. Far too unsure of himself. Hardly any fatted calves to slay for a feast at all.
“And what exactly are those… elements?” Mrs Cjelli leaned forward, hands still creasing the fabric of her corduroys, eyes intent behind her tortoiseshell rimmed glasses.
“There are a lot of parks in London,” said Dirk, not quite sure how to begin. “Probably hundreds. I remember that that one had the best swingset ever, though. Barely squeaked no matter how high you went.”
The wind ruffling his hair; the sound of mum laughing with him, stood in the wood chippings by the bench. The feeling of his hand slipping out of hers when he felt himself tugged away by a huge, hungry pull inside of him.
“The grass was so green,” he continued, gaze dropping to the desk again, unable to look up. The ghost of a late autumn day occupied him. “The leaves were falling from the trees. I just wanted to have a look, and then -”
And then there’d been a huge, calloused hand on his shoulder, another covering his mouth. Something sharp at the back of his throat, a flash of pain and a man’s voice through a radio. ‘Don’t try anything funny, kid.’ Mum had been watching all the way, he’d thought at the time, sure she’d always keep her attention on him, undivided.
Mrs Cjelli - Mum - was silent. He could hear her breath hitch, could almost taste salt in the air. The pressure in his chest hadn’t eased.
“I suppose this might be a bit of a shock,” Dirk said, eventually. He forced himself to look back up, to assess the damage he’d caused. Mum was crying, of course, of course he’d done that to her, but she was smiling too. Dirk didn’t understand.
“A shock, yes,” said Mum, voice gravelly. She reached a hand across the table, catching one of Dirk’s before he could draw it back. Her hand was warm and soft and Dirk found himself gripping back, instinctively. Her skin was thinner than it had been, the veins more pronounced. “Oh, my boy. Of course it’s you, I can see it now. You’re all grown up.”
Abruptly, Dirk realised his own eyes were stinging. He scrubbed at them with his free hand. “I’m sorry,” he said, quietly. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He felt a little like a scratched record, stuck on that one thought.
Mum shook her head. “I think that’s my line,” she said, somewhat broken. “You were so little. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Dirk felt a little like he’d been punched in the chest - a feeling he knew rather intimately by that point of his life. His eyes were still stinging, his vision starting to blur. “Oh, well,” he began, lost for words. “You’d have to say that, wouldn’t you. You were always taking the blame for things.”
The lost cats, for one. The sofa in their little flat had gone through a lot when Dirk went through that phase, seeing every lost pet poster around the neighbourhood and finding them the same day, guided by something he didn’t understand, coaxing them home with him and setting them up with a box in the living room.
Dad hadn’t been happy about the claw marks, or the fact that Dirk had never been able to explain how he found them - it was fairly obvious, in hindsight, that dad had thought Dirk was stealing the cats.
Mum had been very good at distracting him from that, though, had said that the cats just wandered into their third floor flat every so often. Once had claimed that she’d found one of them herself, wandering in an alley on her way home from work. Dad had still looked at him weirdly, something speculative in his eyes, until the morning they’d left for the park and only mum came back.
“Sometimes it was my fault,” said Mum. “I should have seen what your father was up to, should have noticed it all.”
Dirk froze. “Dad?” He hadn’t thought about his father in a long time, before that day, mostly recalling him with a sense of fading fondness. He hadn’t been around very much, always working odd shifts at the office, and he’d treated Dirk as something of a mix between a puppy and a lampshade, depending on the day.
“He was calling these people,” Mum replied. She brought her thumb up to her mouth and bit on it, chewing at some dead skin. “I found out after, you know. I told him you were gone, I spent days searching, and after all that he told me that he arranged it all. Said it was for the best.”
For about the fourth time in half an hour, Dirk stopped. His breath froze in his chest.
Mum gripped his hand tighter, brought her other hand up to rest at his neck. “I left him. Don’t you worry about that, darling. Or… it’s Dirk now, isn’t it?”
Dirk nodded, mutely. He didn’t know how to react, had never expected anything like this to happen. His memories of early childhood were as jumbled as the next person’s, perhaps a little worse than average from the… therapy he’d received from Blackwing, but he’d never expected part of it to reappear in his office, so conveniently, so happy to see him.
He didn’t think the universe was this likely to give him a break.
“Yes,” he said, eventually. “I changed it. Or, well, I suppose that’s a bit obvious isn’t it, of course I changed it if it’s a different name now.” He was getting quite good at smiling when he didn’t feel like it. “Sorry. I know it must’ve meant something to you if you gave it to me, but I couldn’t- I didn’t-”
“It’s alright,” said Mum, soothing in a way that brought back pinprick memories of light. “It’s been a long time, iubit. Things change.” Her voice, once so used to another language, had settled comfortably into English sometime since Dirk had last seen her. It was odd, to hear the endearment and have it sound out of place. Once upon a time, she’d used them constantly, a reminder of the country she’d left behind when Dirk was still in nappies.
He’d forgotten most of them by the time he left Blackwing the first time, but the accent could still bring him up short.
“Where did you go, all those years?” Mum asked. “What made you change your name to something so…” She paused, clearly unsure what to say.
Dirk blinked, felt a tear drip down his cheek. The pressure in his chest had lessened, a little, only to be replaced by the insistent urge to break down and sob. It was something he’d got used to pushing down, over the years, but somehow it was a lot more difficult, this time.
He really didn’t know where to start, this time. “There was - you said dad was calling ‘people’, who were they? Did you know?”
“No,” she replied, shaking her head. “Your father said it was the CIA, but I never believed that. You know he liked to exaggerate, sometimes, make up his little jokes.”
Dirk inhaled slowly. Dad had been like that, he remembered, in his lighter moments. “He wasn’t exaggerating.” He didn’t think he could say much more than that, until, all of a sudden, he felt it bubble up his throat, acidic and vile. “They - kept me, somewhere, away from the sun. Made me do all sorts of things. Punished me for it, usually.” He breathed in again, wetly, around the lump in his throat. “I got out, though, I got away for so long, but then they took me back and now I have to learn how to deal with it all over again.” His fingernails were digging into his arm hard enough to draw blood. The lump in his throat was choking him; he could feel a sob bubbling up again, against his will.
“Oh, my boy,” said Mum. She stood up, abruptly, tugging Dirk upright with their linked hands. “Come here.” She released his hand only to put her hands on her hips, tilting her head with a wobbly smile. Her eyes were red. She’d pushed her glasses up on top of her head, strands of hair escaping from her plait. Her mouth was drawn downwards again, after the brief interval of a smile.
With a feeling of trepidation, Dirk stepped around his desk. It was a good desk, sturdy enough to survive having grown men thrown on it (it happened more than one might expect), or the occasional acid spill. Mum pulled herself up onto it, dislodging one of the piles of boring invoiced, and patted the space next to her.
Dirk pushed himself up, shimmying back until he was sure he wouldn’t slip off, dangled his legs and felt more like a child than he had in almost twenty five years. He was still a few inches from being flush against Mum’s side, keeping a deliberate distance. For all that he’d been clinging to her hand for the last twenty minutes, he still wasn’t entirely convinced it wasn’t a dream.
He’d had all sorts of dreams about her, over the years. A lot of them had been rather unpleasant, in the aftermath of the Letter.
Mum put a careful hand on his shoulder. “Dirk?”
Dirk blinked. He realised, absently, that he was properly crying now, tears welling up faster than he could blink them away. He scrubbed at his eyes again, angrily. “Sorry. I don’t think this was what you expected to find today.”
“No, that’s true,” said Mum, gently moving her arm so it rested across his shoulders. She was smaller than him now, Dirk noted, shorter by a good few inches, so that she had to stretch to reach him. “This is much better than I expected.” She choked, suddenly. Dirk swung his head round, alarmed, to discover that she was crying again.
Hesitantly, he shuffled a little closer, let her pull him in against her shoulder. It felt - he wasn’t sure how it felt. Like breaking into a thousand pieces of a jigsaw and being slowly, carefully. put back together. He rested his cheek on her hair, the fading red shade of it. His arm moved almost of its own accord to wind around her waist.
“You’re a little big to fit in my lap, these days,” said Mum, after a moment. “This is nice, though.”
Dirk nodded, silently. He didn’t think he could put how nice it was into words.
“I am so glad you are here,” she said. “I have to much to make up for.” She sobbed, then, brought up her free hand to wipe her eyes. “Oh, aren’t we a pair? I wish I’d brought a handkerchief, if we’re going to be carrying on like this.”
Despite himself, Dirk felt himself start to smile, a small, gradual thing. “I’m sure Todd can survive me looking less than my best once in awhile.”
“He seems like a nice young man,” said Mum. “He said he liked my coat.”
Her coat, draped over the back of the visitor’s chair, was a patchwork monstrosity in every colour known to man. Dirk could remember it from Before, remember how soft the material felt between his fingers when waiting in the supermarket queue, or standing at the bus stop in the rain. “I like it too,” said Dirk, honestly. “It reminds me of home.”
This made Mum look, if anything, even more upset.
Dirk slipped off the desk, and turned to face her. “Come on, then,” he said decisively, holding his arms out to the side, ever to slightly. “I think we’re due one.”
Mum wrapped her arms around his waist, standing on her toes to rest her chin on his shoulder. Dirk returned the hug and closed his eyes, feeling that odd jigsaw-feeling fill him up. There would be time to discuss things later, to figure out what would happen next.
Just this once, he thought absently, the universe must have owed him.