I was in my twenties when I found a job as secretary to J.A. Buck Fortin. I was sent out from an employment agency for what appeared to be an ordinary office job, but fate landed me in one of the most interesting careers I could have imagined - Girl Friday to a private investigator - and more. Since I was always fascinated by mysteries and I adored the movies of the 1940's, this was an unbelievable opportunity.
It was the late 1950's. West End Investigation was located in the finished basement of a duplex on Girouard Street in Montreal. A clean-cut, heavy set man in a crisp white shirt and pressed slacks invited me into his office. There a huge red Lazy-Boy chair faced a homemade desk below the large street-level window looking out on Girouard Park. It is so long ago, that I can't remember the details of the interview, but it was easy-going and Buck Fortin hired me immediately. A nervous novice, the next day I began to learn my new tasks.
There were dozens of small metal file cabinets. Each contained hundreds of index cards. Each card had a name on it and all the details of court records about that person. Each morning, my first task was to take the court newspaper and type up a card for each person listed there, and then file the new cards among the hundreds in the filing system. I had terrible fantasies about what might happen if one of the detectives searching a drawer were to drop it. The rest of my assignment was to type up the scrawled reports of the staff detectives.
That was the job I had been sent to do, but it did not end there. Before long, Buck asked me to make some inquiries in a case. As a youngster, I had amused my best friend Shirley by making anonymous telephone calls to strangers whose names I chose randomly from the phone book. I would call Mr. Crook and ask about his last bank robbery. I would telephone a woman I knew but who didn't recognize my voice and pretend to be a flustered mother trying to bake a cake, while Shirley - in the background - would pretend to be a noisy child pestering me. The people I called seemed amused so no harm was done, and I exercised by aspiring acting skills. And now, my employer was asking me to make telephone inquiries using various pretexts.
When I was typing up the detectives' reports, I started correcting their English and their grammar. As I read the reports, I thought about how I would have handled the investigations, what I would have said, what I would have done. My job was becoming more interesting, more responsible. One day, Buck asked me to go out on an assignment on my own. I was thrilled ! My career as an investigator was born and I loved it.
Buck spoke English with the very slightest accent. He knew his business. Both of them. As J. Arthur Fortin, he was a chartered public accountant - a practical business man - but most of all, he was a genuine-to-the-core private detective. Buck was sharp and he was tough.. He was confident, steady, polite. I can't remember ever hearing him raise his voice except to call to his children who lived upstairs with their mother, Margie … Mike, Ricky, Susy, Peter, Cathy. The steps from the office led up to their home and the younger children and their beagle, Sammy, often wandered down into the office to keep me company as I attended to business. Buck was a gentleman, but even the dark and strange little man called Blackjack - aka Donato - would not think to mess with him.
Buck's brother Paul was on the job at the office very early each morning, but I don't think I ever saw him sober. He tended to have a temper, but Buck was the boss and so I don't believe I ever had a problem with Paul.
As a new employee at West End Investigation, I was shy and nervous, but my interest in my work grew by leaps and bounds. How shy was I ? How hesitant ? I was always shy about asking an employer for anything. After many months, I worked up the nerve to ask Buck for a three dollar raise. I can still see him standing there on the stairs - stopped in his tracks. I felt a pang seeing his expression. He looked as if I had wounded him. But, without any further ado, the three dollar raise was granted.
Buck was active in the Lions' Club and editor of the chapter's bulletin. When he saw how good my reports were, he asked me to ghost write his editorials for the Lions' Club Bulletin. I became "The Ghost of Buck". One day, he came to my desk and quietly confided in me. He revealed how he was affected by a mid-life crisis, loneliness, frustration, alienation from his church. And more. We called that sensitive essay, "Le Demon de Minuit."
Buck and I had a special relationship. There was a mutual attraction that I was well aware of. But it was a respectful relationship. Even though there was a distance between Buck and Margie, he and I were both married people. He always called me "Gal". His tone in dealing with me was always polite, but warm. He never made an advance, never touched me, never spoke to me in an inappropriate manner. It was many years later before he spoke to me plainly about his affection for me. I did not share his hopes, but we would have long telephone conversations even into the mid-1960's. I wanted to maintain a friendship, go out for coffee together, but he could not bear to see me. We remained friends at a distance, and I still feel deep admiration and affection as I remember him.
Buck Fortin was an authentic private detective. A macho man, but a gentleman. I am indebted to him for all he taught me, how he trusted me and for the warmth and respect of his affection for me.
In the mid-1970's I would be an investigator for Pinkerton - and I say without hesitation - a very good one. The President of Pinkerton, Quebec, Paul St. Amour, introduced me to a client as "the gem of the company". The client said that when he read my reports, it was as if he were on the scene himself, seeing everything with his own eyes. I often succeeded where the men failed, and I loved the job. However, my supervisor at Pinkerton, Montreal, George Neil, believed I aspired to his job and he made my situation very difficult for me.
While Mr.Neil could only be reached at the Igloo Bar at Dorval airport in the afternoons, I was on the job and, at the same time, struggling to guess what trick he might pull next to try to get rid of me. And George Neil did play dirty tricks - on me and on others, including the company. Instructions he gave for a surveillance and report this afternoon, he would deny tomorrow. Assignments I could have covered were stashed in his locked desk drawer and given to a male detective in the evening at time-and-a-half pay. A secretary and I dared, one day, to report Neil's actions to a visiting supervisor. He said he was well aware of Neil's drinking and what he was doing, but he advised us with sincere kindness, to forget what we knew for our own sakes.
I kept meticulous records, but it was a long time before I gathered the courage to report George Neil's actions in a detailed letter to Pinkerton's head office in New York. I received a letter from a supervisor at the New York office with almost the identical name - George Neal ? - saying how sad and surprised Pinkerton was to hear about the problems and that they would investigate. Ha ! I feared I would meet with an unfortunate accident and I did not pursue it further. But that is a whole bunch of other stories. In all the years I worked with Buck Fortin I never had a problem or a disagreement with him.
Searching the Internet, I could not find a single mention of J.A. Buck Fortin of West End Investigation. That is unfortunate. It seems Buck just served his clients, supported his children, his home, his brother and his employees, solved his cases, did his charitable work, and - departed. I dedicate this memoir to Buck Fortin, a man who deserves to be remembered - fondly.
October 22, 2010