Among the many questions that have puzzled football scholars over the years, perhaps none is more important than this: why do so many Premier League managers look like detectives in various states of disgruntlement? This story doesn’t provide an answer to that question, but it does imagine a world in which Premier League managers are not Premier League managers at all, but detectives in various states of disgruntlement. This is The I’s for Investigator, the speculative noir crime periodical you almost certainly haven’t been waiting for.
Slav woke up in the dark, tied to a chair, trying to remember what day it was. He was in what appeared to be a warehouse, surrounded by crates and boxes and other assorted junk, arranged to form a sort of room. He could see a light in the distance, could hear a TV, playing what sounded like the Match of the Day theme tune, meaning Saturday night, or Sunday morning.
“Hello?” said Slav. “Hello?”
Hushed voices, the pushing back of chairs, footsteps. Two men entered the sort-of room, walked toward Slav, picked up his chair and carried him out.
“I suspect this would be easier if you let me walk,” said Slav.
Neither spoke. Slav, with nothing else to do, looked at them. The Left One, shoulders hunched, face blank in a way that hinted at some future, manic activity, as if it were resting. The Right One, younger, preppy, brought to mind a chipmunk, smiling placidly. He was, Slav thought, over-dressed for a man who was carrying another man tied to a chair, refusing to talk to him.
“Excuse me,” said Slav. “Can you hear me?”
They carried him between more piles of crates and boxes, lined up to form walls, rooms, hallways, in the direction of the TV. It was an old TV, big and boxy, set on a steel cart. Two more men sat on folding chairs, watching. The Left One and the Right One set Slav down in front of it, at which point one of the other two men, bald, bearded, his right hand placed flat on top of his head, spoke: “Why would you put him in front of the TV? What do you think we’re doing?” The Left One and the Right One picked Slav up and moved him to the side, back to the screen, so he could only listen.
Next to the Bald One sat the Brooding One, gray hair, dark eyebrows, very gently jowly. He nodded occasionally, but mostly he sat still. The Left One and the Right One sat down in their own chairs and they all four of them watched TV; highlights, Slav gathered, of the Manchester derby.
“Who won?” he said, smiling. The Right One started to speak, but the Bald One cut him off.
“Don’t. I don’t know the score.”
“Why?” said the Bald One a few moments later, throwing his hands in the air. “Why will they not play? There is a central midfielder playing left-back and they have not made him defend once. Not once.”
“They don’t have the players,” said the Brooding One. “Injuries.”
“You must make the players,” said the Left One.
“It is probably the board’s fault,” said the Right One.
“Excuse me,” said Slav, and all four of them looked at him at once, as if to say do not even so much as think about opening your mouth again, you little s—t, and Slav concluded, with a frown, that he would not be allowed to watch with them. The Bald One could not stop moving, fidgeting, crossing and re-crossing his legs, splaying and de-splaying his fingers, muttering to himself. The Brooding One brooded.
“This is not football,” said the Bald One, throwing his right hand above his head, looking away.
“Why will he not let them play?”
“They are playing, of course they are playing,” said the Brooding One. “There are twenty-two men and a ball. What else are they doing? You think defending is not football. You are a snob, spoiled.”
“There is a difference between defending and not attacking. I don’t know how I still have to explain this to you.”
“Explain what? You think you are better than everyone because you insist on an arbitrary standard of beauty. On what is brave. On what is good. And yet this bravery, this beauty can only exist in the context of victory and defeat. Bravery is a function of risk. Without the threat of losing, there is no bravery. The game would lose all sense. You believe the same thing as me. You’re just in denial.”
“We play the sport to win, but we play the sport beautifully because winning is not enough. It has never been enough. To win ugly is only half a victory. A hollow victory.”
“How do you not see this? That it is just one structure among many, to pass, to pass, to pass. These tactics are arbitrary. One system among many. We have decided this is more beautiful. Why? What is the reason? Tell me the reason.”
“Excitement. Goals. Speed of play. Passing.”
“Excitement, pah!” The Brooding One shook his head. “In ancient Greece, they—”
“Ancient Greece! Always the ancient Greeks with you. Are we in ancient Greece?”
The Left One, who had the look of a man who had heard this argument one too many times before, interrupted: “Pep, Jose, please. We have a guest.”
“Ugh, Shearer,” said Pep, looking at the TV, turning it off.
They rolled the TV out of the way and stood in a semicircle around Slav. Jose spoke first: “Mr. Bilic,” he said. “Do you know who we are?”
“We work for a man they call the Professor. You’ve heard of this man?”
“I’ve heard rumors.”
“And what do these rumors say?”
“They say the Professor is not a man to be trifled with.”
Jose smiled: “They speak the truth.”
Slav’s understanding was that the Professor was one of those mythical creatures that emerges, from time to time, from the seedy underbelly of a city such as this, looming, unseen, but always, seemingly, involved, the sort of criminal even good police were resigned to never locking up. The way these things worked, in Slav’s experience, meant only about one of every ten facts you heard about these creatures turned out to be correct, meaning the Professor either was ex-MI6; a member of the royal family; an actual professor (of philosophy or economics, depending who you asked); had infiltrated the KGB during the Cold War, only to discover he preferred life in Russia and stayed (and now, apparently, come back); was the piano player in the E Street Band; had spent his formative years in Japan; was laundering money in Switzerland or Panama or some such tax haven; intended to use his wealth to buy a controlling stake in Arsenal Football Club; didn’t exist at all, was a kind of boogeyman of the criminal underworld, used by people like the ones currently interrogating Slav to scare people like Slav away from investigating their various misdeeds; or was actually a really nice guy once you got to know him.
“What do you want from me?” said Slav.
“I think, Mr. Bilic,” said Pep, “your investigation into the whereabouts of Mr. Wilshere may prove unsuccessful.”
“This is a big city. Bad things happen. People go missing. People die, even. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Not really. What do you want with Jack Wilshere? He can barely get a game.”
“This is much bigger than Jack,” said Pep.
“Then why can’t you let him go?”
“Let’s say,” said Jose, “the Professor has invested a lot of his time into this particular student. It would be a shame if he were to forget his education.”
Slav did not consider himself to be moved by any especially noble ambitions. He did the work he was hired to do, no more, no less. And he had been hired to find Jack Wilshere. Samantha knew the police couldn’t be trusted, suspected they may even have had something to do with it, so she called Slav, and here he now was, kidnapped himself and being interrogated by four men on behalf of a fifth that might not even exist. A job was a job, Slav reminded himself, tempted as he was to give up. The PI game was a game of good references, after all.
Slav, frowning, “can I have a cigarette?”
“No smoking. Professor’s rules.”
“Can I meet him?”
“Maybe one day.”
“But not today?”
“What day is it?”
“What about Monday?”
“Not Monday either.”
“When the Professor is ready to meet you, you will meet.”
“So you brought me here for what, then?”
“To tell you to lay off the case.”
“What do you mean, that’s it?”
“You knock me out — in public, I might add — take me here, leave me here for, what, 48 hours, to tell me to get off the case. Couldn’t we have done this over the phone?”
“We hoped,” said Jose, “this would help to impress upon you the seriousness of our request.”
“And what should I tell Ms. Wilshere?”
“That, Mr. Bilic, is not our problem.”
As Jose said this, the Right One moved toward Slav, producing from one of his pockets a small brown sack, which he thrust over Slav’s head. Slav, in the dark again: “One more question. What happened to Craig and Eddie? Do they work for you?”
One of the Ones started laughing, a minor chuckle. Another joined in, and another, until all four of them were laughing loudly. Slav pictured hands laid on top of bellies, slapped knees, bodies bent at the waist, laughing, laughing, laughing.