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.
The Gegenpress and Duck was a homely sort of pub: wood-paneled walls and a wooden floor that had absorbed decades’ worth of smoke and booze and whatever other smells their combination could conjure; big windows, divided by muntins, made smaller by a bad paint job and dirt and dust; a few sad strands of tinsel left over from the holiday season. Behind the bar stood a very tall man, bearded and bespectacled, next to a smaller, more reserved-looking version of the same man. On the speaker system, heavy metal music played quietly.
The pub was empty but for a few of the sort of people who looked like their presence was written into the deed of the building, bent so far over their drinks, so still and quiet, they appeared, in category, almost indistinguishable from the chairs and tables on and at which they sat, or the tinsel that months (years?) ago had been hung above them to give them a little whiff of holiday cheer. Slav, shirt and jacket and pants crumpled, grubby, grass-stained, sat at the bar.
“Welcome,” said the two bartenders in unison, apparently unrehearsed.
“Hello,” said Slav.
“What would you like?” This time only the taller one spoke.
“Pint of lager, please.”
“What’s on your mind?”
“What do you mean?” said Slav.
“Well, if you don’t mind me saying, you look like s—t. And looking like s—t counts double at this time of day.”
“And this time of week,” added the shorter one.
“It’s been a long day,” he said.
“And yet it’s only noon.”
“A long morning, then.”
The taller one laughed, a big laugh, the sort of laugh Slav was tempted to lie down inside of and go to sleep in. When he stopped laughing, he asked again: “What’s on your mind?”
“I’m being chased,” said Slav, “by people who I think may want to kill me.”
The two bartenders looked at each other.
“Well,” said the shorter one, handing Slav his pint, “better drink up.” And the two of them started laughing again, louder and louder, holding their bellies in their hands, slapping the bar. Slav, to his own surprise, began to laugh with them, though the joke wasn’t funny, or even a joke. He laughed until tears streamed from his eyes, a high-pitched laugh that after a time was barely audible, a laugh that made his stomach hurt.
When they stopped laughing, the bartenders introduced themselves. The taller one was Jurgen. The shorter one David.
“Slav,” said Slav. “Nice to meet you.”
“Why, may I ask,” said David, “do these people want to kill you?”
Slav, who hadn’t had a chance to ask himself this most basic question, thought for a moment.
“They’re up to no good. And I’m trying to stop them.”
Jurgen nodded sagely: “You’re safe here.”
Slav didn’t stop to ask himself why they would not only believe him, who was talking about things that must surely have sounded ludicrous, but also take his side. He was too tired for such questions, though he wasn’t too tired, looking to his right, where one of the regulars sat at the far end of the bar, for the thought to occur to him that perhaps they were merely humoring him, treating him as but one more of these head-in-drink types — what ludicrous stories had they once had to tell? — absorbed by time, assisted by their own stillness, into the fabric of the pub. As Slav teetered sleepily on the edge of this line of thought, Jurgen slapped the bar:
“You know what you need?”
As if on cue, the metal that had been playing quietly in the background was replaced by something very different, something Slav recognized but couldn’t identify, the volume was raised and Jurgen walked around to the other side of the bar and dragged Slav to his feet. Slav was, to put it charitably, not a dancer, not really a music person in any capacity at all, and yet he found himself unable to resist Jurgen’s kindly prodding, and stepped (plodded, perhaps, trudged) from side to side — in time, out of time, how could he possibly know something like that? — like a child trying to stave off a trip to the bathroom. Jurgen, meanwhile, was lost to the music, spinning and shuffling and twisting and sliding and singing and grinning. The regulars looked at their drinks. Jurgen, raising his voice above the music, asked Slav a question Slav didn’t hear, and Slav smiled and nodded. Eventually, mercifully, the song came to an end and Slav was permitted to take his seat. Jurgen, chuckling, walked back to his side of the bar.
“Feel better?” he said.
“Sure,” said Slav, in something of a daze, not entirely convinced the events of the previous three and half minutes had really taken place.
“Good,” said Jurgen. “You know, m—”
“I hate to interrupt,” said David, “but there’s a group of unfriendly looking gentlemen approaching the pub. They wouldn’t happen to be your unfriendly group of gentlemen, Slav, would they?”
Slav turned around, looked out the window. Pep, Jose and the Left One were marching angrily in his direction.
“S—t,” said Slav. “That’s them.”
“Quick,” said David. “Come around here.”
Slav was directed to a door in the floor behind the bar, which opened onto set of steps leading to a small storage area. David told him to get inside. Slav wasn’t fond of small spaces. He looked at David, looked back at the window at Pep and the others, thought about whether he could trust these people — don’t trust anyone, was Slav’s general rule, but then they had shared a dance, hadn’t they, didn’t that count for something? — decided he didn’t have choice and walked down the stairs, into darkness.