"A willow deeply scarred, somebody's broken heart
And a washed out dream
They follow the pattern of the wind, ya see
'Cause they got no place to be
That's why I'm starting with me—"
"I never took you as a singer, Detective."
Callahan choked. Crap. He jerked his head to the door of his office. A woman stood there, a smile creeping onto her face. Oh god, not her. He drew in a breath and clenched his jaw. "The forensics lab isn't this way, Maxine."
"I only came here to collect the evidence you borrowed from the lab," Maxine said, stifling her grin. "The phone, to be exact."
Out of all of the people that could've walked in, it just had to be the person he would have to work with the most. It just had to be the one who never failed to uphold a subtle sense of composure and respect, like how she stood perfectly still no more than a centimetre into the office, placing one hand on top of the other in a businesslike manner, with her wavy hair pulled back into a neat ponytail. Callahan coughed, standing a bit straighter and crossing his arms, coming off as menacing as a small fluffy dog screaming at an Alsatian. "Next time, knock first."
"The door was already open," Maxine stated, still at the doorway.
The fluffy dog inside him screamed. "It was?"
"Yes. You didn't notice that? I thought detectives were supposed to be vigilant and observant."
Callahan closed his eyes. Despite her demeanour, her snide jabs were about as subtle as Callahan's embarrassment. "This is the office, not the field. Just come in here and get your stuff, will you?"
Maxine finally took a few steps into the room, but, as expected, stepped no further than the wooden table. Callahan walked further into the room to yet another table against a wall (a folding table he snagged from another office). In comparison to the paperwork and folders arranged in a grid-like manner on the wooden desk, the folding table was a garbage dump for anything out of place as a compensation to make everything else moderately neat. As he searched through the heap—why didn't he return the thing sooner?—he could feel Maxine staring and waiting, building up on the already uncomfortable atmosphere.
"So..." Maxine prompted, breaking the silence. "How long have you been singing for, Detective?"
Callahan scoffed, pushing an overstuffed plastic folder onto the floor. "Depends. How long have you been standing there?"
"I don't keep track of time when I listen to music."
Callahan drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out.
"Don't worry Detective," Maxine added. "We all heard your voice loud and clear. You've entertained the entire hallway for a good measure of time."
Callahan bit his lip. Dammit, it was definitely the heat in this room that was making his face hot. "Yeah yeah, thanks." He lifted a book and, with a sigh of relief, pulled out a phone in a tagged plastic bag beneath it. "And no need to call me 'Detective' if you're going to sound condescending every time you say it."
"What about Dylan?"
"Alright, Detective Dylan."
Callahan resisted the urge to chuck the phone at her face.
He dropped the evidence on the table and slid it across the table to her. "There's your evidence. Now go on, will you?"
Maxine didn't touch it. "Actually, may I ask..."
"No, you may not."
"Do you have a musical background?"
On one hand, Callahan was more than ready to shoo her out of his office and out of his business, but on the other hand, what harm could it do, aside from a string of jokes and comments he'd never hear the end of for as long as he has to work with Maxine? Definitely less harm than Maxine chewing his ear off with questions and even more ridiculous assumptions like singing in the shower, that's for sure. (That wouldn't even be close; he performs.)
"Yes, I do," Callahan crossed his arms again. "I started with the piano when I was three and threw in the violin a few months later. I also picked up a couple more along the way, especially when I took up a music minor back at university."
Instead of the usual expected quip, Maxine, for once, seemed somewhat surprised. "That's... interesting." She nodded to herself. "Do you still play any of those instruments?"
Callahan pursed his lips. "Well, I've enjoyed music my whole life, so I do still play my instruments. Mostly my violin." He slightly furrowed his brows. "Well, at least I used to. Haven't picked her up in a long while, now that I think—"
Maxine looked at Callahan. "Her?"
This time, it wasn't just the fluffy dog that was screaming. "Well, I mean—"
Maxine made a face. "You actually gave it a gender?"
"Hey, for the record—" Callahan better positioned himself to face Maxine. "Ships are called 'she', cars are called 'she', and I know some of the agents here call their weapons 'she' or 'he', so why can't the same apply to instruments?"
"Okay, okay," Maxine chuckled. "Do you miss... playing her, though?"
"Of course I do—" Wait. "Yes, I do miss playing my instrument." That did not sound any better than before. "My violin. I miss playing my violin. It's just... harder with the job, that's all."
Callahan coughed and Maxine nodded. "That's... unfortunate. It really is."
He shrugged. "Sometimes it just happens, y'know?"
She nodded again, letting her eyes drift past Callahan in thought. After a moment, she tilted her head to look at Callahan and her hazel eyes glanced over him, then did it again, examining him from top to bottom. A satisfactory look crossed her face, and she took the evidence bag, preparing to leave. "I'll be going now."
"Whoa there, hold on for a second," Callahan stopped her and gave her an odd look. "Why were you looking at me like that?"
"Oh, it's nothing important," Maxine said.
"Come on, just spit it out," Callahan probed. "If you've got something to say, say it to my face."
Maxine looked at the door. "No, it's fine, it's nothing"
He narrowed his eyes. "I'm sure it's something. Go ahead."
"There's no need for it—"
"It's fine, I probably don't care about whatever you have to say."
Maxine hesitated, slightly flustered. "Are you sure?"
This time, Callahan was grinning. "Please, go ahead."
"Um. If you insist," Maxine looked out of the room for a second. Callahan smirked in victory. He's finally got her in a corner now. Her eyes darted down to the floor, then to him, then back to the floor, her eyes blinking as she tried to form the right words from her thoughts, until she finally stopped, took a deep breath, and looked Callahan dead in his green eyes. Here goes nothing.
"You look like a movie character."
Callahan gawked at her.
"You do! You look like an actual movie character. I mean, you're a spitting image of a..." she clenched her fists and deepened her voice. "a textbook hard-boiled, rough, and rugged noir detective. The adventurous sort, who always gets into trouble and barely makes it out alive."
Callahan's jaw dropped, both by surprise and confusion.
"I mean, when I saw you on that crime scene the first time, I thought, 'Wow, am I in a book right now?' Because you..." her hands flailed. "you look like the perfect embodiment of what someone would think of when they hear the words 'noir detective '—at least for me!"
Callahan blinked, slowly. "Where did you even get all of that from?"
"Well..." Maxine gestured towards Callahan. "I don't think there's much to say."
Callahan blinked again.
"I mean, with the trench coat and the way you turn its collar up. It's straight out of a pulp fiction magazine. And you always wear it!"
"Maxine, this is my uniform."
"Well, okay, but... but your face! You've got that partially unkempt hair and the 5 o'clock shadow from no longer really caring about yourself, and the... you know," Maxine traced a line above her cheek. "Oh, and your eyebags from the all-nighters you pull off."
Maxine made a sheepish grin and fiddled with her fingers. Callahan kept staring at her, still completely dumbfounded at the callow (but, ironically and depressingly, somewhat accurate) description. Maxine grew more uncomfortable by the seconds. Why did she have to say all that? Why didn't she just walk away—
There was a sputter, followed by an eruption of laughter from the detective. He laughed so hard he tossed his head back and forth, resorting to leaning against the wooden table to support himself. Just as the laughter seemed to have subdued, Maxine opened her mouth to speak, which sent Callahan howling with laughter again. Maxine watched his body rock and forced herself to laugh along, now more terrified than concerned.
"What," Callahan said when he finally forced himself to take a breath, "the actual hell!?"
Maxine made a look of exasperation. "That's how I've always seen you!"
Callahan's eyes were twinkling. "Seriously!?"
Callahan slapped his thigh and started laughing again.
Maxine opened her palms, starting to grin. "Well yes! You're that dark, cynical character in... I don't know, a crime or mystery drama whose painful and traumatic past toughened him up, so now he's a spiteful and private person who grits through the dirt and forces himself to finish the task, even if it ruins his life. And all the other characters always keep their distance with him, since no one knows much about him except for his violent streak, and they all find him intimidating or even scary."
Callahan wiped a tear from his eye. "That's quite a description! Is this..." he swallowed. "Is this your first time on a case?"
Maxine shook her head. "I know it's ridiculous, but I can never not think of that whenever I see you! Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror?"
Callahan chuckled. "I am not like that."
"Yes you are!"
"Did you know Agent Randall's terrified of you?"
Callahan scoffed at her in disbelief. "Isn't he the one who took down a room full of men with a sack of flour and got knifed in the throat as a kid?"
Callahan put a hand to his hip and the other to his head. "Oh my god."
"See? I'm not the only one who sees you that way!" Maxine grinned. "You should try to relax once in a while, and, you know, unwind and have some fun. You look like you really need it."
Callahan snickered. "I've had my own share of 'fun'."
She shrugged. "Michael Jackson's a start."
"And now," he continued, looking up at the wall clock, "is most definitely not the time to relax. Shouldn't you be back at the lab?"
Maxine looked back as Callahan ushered her. "When was the last time you took a long break, anyway?"
"Don't know. Probably the last time I tried to answer that question."
She smiled, but as soon as she turned towards the doorway, it dissipated and she quickly regained her formal composure, her eyes set in a soft glare as she smoothed her laboratory coat. She looked back at Callahan and made a firm nod. "See you around, Detective."
Just as she began to walk out of the office, she stopped at the doorway. She looked back at Callahan—the unkempt hair, the 5 o'clock shadow, the dark circles beneath his eyes, the upturned collar hiding the scars running down his face—and, with a thoughtful look that softened her gaze, smiled.
"Look alive, Callahan."
With that, she promptly walked out, leaving Callahan standing alone in his office, surrounded by the stash of objects he forced into any empty space he could find, and his thoughts of whether he would ever clean it all up in time.
The door to Callahan's home swung open and the aroma of coffee hit him in the face. A young man with glasses sat cross-legged facing away from the door, unmoving save his fingers flying across his laptop.
"Mr. Quill. You're back early."
"I know," Callahan looked down at the manila folders arranged in a perfect circle around the man, all organised into neat stacks of varying heights with not a single one out of line with the other, and, to Callahan's amusement, completed with an empty paper cup on top of each stack facing outwards. "Which demon are you trying to summon here this time, Quinn?"
"Don't know, but looks like it just worked," he replied, sipping coffee from yet another paper cup by his side.
"But really, what are you doing?" Callahan carefully walked towards the circle of manila folders, careful not to kick one down, and bent down to look at one of them. "Are these my case files?"
"I've finished tracing the set of messages and images you assigned me, so I continued to archive your cases."
Callahan shot Quinn a look which he didn't see. "Continued?"
"I recall a year ago you stated that you wanted to digitally archive your case files for safety measures, such as, I quote, 'Another theft, the possibility of an explosion, yet another imposter—'"
"Alright, alright, I get it," Callahan interrupted.
"So ever since you've said that, whenever you were occupied with another task from your other workplace and I have completed your assignments, I archived your case files from oldest to newest, and after every month I've archived, I award myself with a cup of coffee," he raised the cup for Callahan to see and drank from it. " Usually, I would clean up 10 minutes before your usual time of arrival, but since you came back early, I have not."
"Wow. That's... " Callahan watched as Quinn pressed a final button, "that's mint. That's impressive. But you do know that you don't have to do that, right? You're just my intern, not my personal assistant."
"They're synonymous," Quinn snapped his laptop shut and downed the coffee.
Callahan snorted. "Thanks anyway."
Quinn, for the first time, looked up at Callahan, and pulled his lips back in what appeared to be a smile. "Anything for a good reference letter."
"We'll see about that. You need help with those?"
"No thank you," Quinn said as he began to put back the case files into their respective cabinet drawers.
Callahan shook his head and smiled—until he caught himself rubbing the scar on the left of his chin with his thumb. Then it hit him. Since when was this a habit? Well, obviously, ever since that incident, but why did he keep doing it? It didn't itch or irritate him, and he has since long grown used to it (along with reciting the short version of the story to whoever asked). Then he thought about when the incident happened. Has it really been three... no, four years?
His thumb slowed to a stop over the indent of the scar, and his gaze shifted to the stairs on the left, then down to the door of the guest bathroom which was left slightly ajar, revealing the mirror inside. A thought popped into his head, and he found himself walking past the ring of case files towards the door, slipping into the darkness of the room.
Surely he was still the same person. Surely he hasn't changed that much, has he?
Callahan flipped the switch and faced the mirror as the lights flickered to life.
"Bloody hell," he whispered in awe.
He stared at the stranger that was his reflection and laughed. Bloody hell indeed! Even though he sees his reflection on a daily basis, he never really bothered to actually look at it. And now that he did, he realised Maxine was wrong: he didn't look intimidating or scary, he looked downright ghastly!
The past years had hit him like a truck. He has changed—a lot. Whatever happened to who he was? The spirited, lively fella who didn't care about anything too much? Wasn't it about helping people and solving puzzles? Did he still enjoy this life as much as he did before? Why couldn't things have been simpler? He remembered how he thought he would be bold (or stupid) in the face of uncertainty, and how he used to brush off any problems off his shoulder. Why couldn't he remain that way? Sure, he knew he was sacrificing his wide-eyed ambitions for this, but was it really worth it? Was it really worth sacrificing the fragility of his dreams? Was it really worth the tiresome days and restless nights? Was it really worth trading the past days of innocence for future days of guilt?
Callahan sighed and switched the lights off. Now wouldn't that be nice! If only he could have a day—just one day—from the past, where the fear of uncertainty and uncertainty of fear could be ignored and left forgotten.
He looked at Quinn, who only had one stack left to clean up. "Hey Quinn, do me a favour and be completely honest?"
Quinn inserted a few files into a drawer. "Sure."
Callahan hesitated for a moment, then chuckled. "You think shaving's a good idea?"
Quinn stopped in his tracks. He looked back at Callahan and blinked. "Mr. Quill, isn't it too early for a mid-life crisis?"
Callahan pressed his lips together.
"What?" Quinn shrugged. "You asked for an honest opinion."
Callahan groaned. "Yeah, nevermind then—"
"But if you do intend to shave," Quinn added. "sure, you'll look younger and less..." he stared at the files in his hand. "It doesn't matter to me. Some things... grow on us over time—" he paused. That was unintentional. "—both for the better and the worse. It's inevitable, and it happens. You can keep it if you like it or leave it if... I don't know, if you don't want it or someone else bothered to care so much about a stubble. Either way, I'll still see you as my employer, so..."
Quinn shrugged and proceeded to organise the last few files. Callahan stood in silence, watching him finger through the drawer and slip in the files one by one. He raised his hand to rub the scar on his chin again, but this time, rather than stopping himself and forcing his hand down, he paused for a moment, shrugged, and ran his finger over it. He slipped deep into his thoughts, reflecting on what Maxine and Quinn had said. Then, after looking past the sheer absurdity of their snarky and deadpan remarks, he grinned to himself.
As Quinn slung his knapsack over his shoulders, Callahan strode over to the door and held it open. "Guess you're done for the day."
Quinn waved goodbye walked out, but after a few steps out did a double-take and walked backwards towards Callahan. "Actually, if you do decide to grow a beard, please don't. It would look quite disturbing."
Callahan snorted. "I don't intend to. Doubt it'll suit me, too."
"But really, please, please, don't. Especially the bushy kind. It'll be really hard to see your lips moving with all that..." He waved his hand over his mouth. "That. Very disgusting, very strange. I would be focusing on the wrong thing whenever you talk. I'm sure everyone else would agree as well."
Callahan laughed and nodded. "Duly noted, Quinn. Duly noted. See you tomorrow."