Was I proud of Bernie or what?
True, he’d been pretty nervous going into this gig. I can always tell when Bernie’s nervous—which hardly ever happens, and never when we’re in action—because his smell sharpens a bit, although it’s still the best human smell there is: apples, bourbon, salt and pepper. But now, up on the stage, he was doing great.
“Which, um,” he was saying, “reminds me of a joke. “Sort of. Maybe not a joke,” he went on, turning a page, “more like a—” and at that moment the whole wad of papers somehow jumped out of his hands, all the pages gliding down in different directions. He bent and started gathering them up. That gave me a chance, sitting a few rows back, to recoy or recon—or something like that—the joint, always important in our line of work, as Bernie often said.
We were in a conference room at a hotel near the airport, and everyone in the audience—maybe not quite as big as it had been at the beginning, when Bernie had tapped the microphone, a painful sound for me, pounding like drums right next to my ears, although no one else seemed to mind, cleared his throat, and said, “Can, uh, you hear me all right?” a terrific start, in my opinion— was a private eye, on account of this was the Great Western Private Eye Convention. We’re partners in the Little Detective Agency, me and Bernie, Bernie’s last name being Little. I’m Chet, pure and simple, and we’d been in business for almost as long as I could remember, although we’d never been to a convention before. “Not our thing,” Bernie said, so that was that, until Georgie Malhouf, president of the Great Western Private Eye Association, offered Bernie five hundred bucks to give a speech.
“A speech?” Bernie had said.
“Twenty minutes, tops,” Georgie Malhouf told him. “Plus questions.”
“I’ve never given a speech in my life.”
“So what?” said Georgie Malhouf. “There was also a time in your life when you hadn’t had sex. Did that stop you?”
That one zipped right by me, but the point was: five hundred bucks. Our finances were a mess. We hadn’t worked an actual case—not even divorce, which we hated—in I didn’t know how long, plus there was the hit we’d taken from the tin futures thing, and don’t get me started on the stacks and stacks of Hawaiian pants, locked away at our self-storage in Pedroia; we hadn’t sold a single pair. Why they hadn’t caught on was a mystery to me: didn’t everybody love Hawaiian shirts? Bernie had lots of them, was wearing one of my favorites right now up on that stage, the blue number with the gold trumpets.
He picked up the pages, or most of them, and tried to get them back into some kind of order. Meanwhile, I heard feet shuffling out of the room behind me, and across the aisle I was sitting in both Mirabelli brothers seemed to be asleep, their mouths hanging open. On my other side sat Georgie Malhouf, a real skinny guy with sunken cheeks and a thick black mustache. There’s something about mustaches that makes it hard for me to look away, so I didn’t. After some time, I noticed that Georgie was looking at me, too.
“On the ball, aren’t you?” he said. “Just like they say.”
Ball? I’m just about always in the mood to play ball. A very faint thought arose in my mind, something about this maybe not being a good time for playing ball; but it sank quickly away, and I kept my eyes on Georgie Malhouf, waiting for him to produce a ball from somewhere. No ball appeared. Georgie Malhouf was keeping his eyes, small and dark, on me.
“Ten grand sound about right?” he said.
Numbers aren’t my best thing—I stop at two, a perfect number in my opinion—but when it came to money anything with grand in it got us excited, me and Bernie. He was bumping us up to ten grand? Bernie’s speech was going even better than I’d thought.
BAM BAM BAM. Bernie was tapping the microphone again. “Hear me all right?” He glanced up at the audience, from which came no response, and then quickly down to the papers in his hand. For some reason, he was holding them kind of close to his face, and they weren’t quite steady.
“This, uh, joke—maybe more like a …” He lapsed into silence, a silence that seemed rather long—although the room was getting noisier, with more movement toward the doors behind me—then cleared his throat again, so forcefully it had to hurt, and said very loudly, almost a shout: “Riddle!” He toned it down a bit. “Riddle. That’s it. Here comes the riddle: What did the duck say to the horse?” He glanced up in an abrupt sort of way and scanned the audience, what was left of it.
What did the duck say to the horse? Was that what Bernie had just said?
“Anybody?” Bernie said. “Duck? Horse?”
No response. I knew horses, of course, prima donnas each and every one. I’d also had an encounter with a duck, in the middle of a lake in the border country on our way back from a case we’d been working down Mexico way. Nipped me right on the nose, which came as a big surprise. But horses and ducks together? I had nothing to offer.
Up on stage, Bernie opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again. “‘Why the long face?’” he said.
Bernie reached out, maybe thinking of tapping the microphone again, but did not. “Duck?” he said. “Noting the horse’s different physiognomy, which was the topic of my speech, facial classifications? A funny little approach to the subject at hand?”
Bernie shuffled through the papers. “And I guess that more or less … brings us to the end of the prepared remarks.” What was the word for when humans talk but you can’t understand a thing? Muttering? Yeah. Bernie was muttering now. “Happy to take any questions,” he went on, or something like that.
There were no questions.
“Well, then, it’s time to, uh … thanks. Yeah. Thanks. You’ve been a great, um.” Bernie raised his hand in a funny sort of wave, a page or two flying free, and started walking off the stage. Then came the applause. I heard it for sure, but my sense of hearing’s probably better than yours, no offense.
“Fantastic, Bernie,” Georgie Malhouf was saying. We were at a corner table in the bar of the airport hotel, and by now Bernie had stopped sweating. “You’re a natural-born public speaker.”
“Never seen anything like it.” A fresh round of drinks came, beer for Bernie and Georgie Malhouf, water in a nice big soup bowl for me. Georgie clinked Bernie’s glass. “Why the long face,” he said. “Priceless. When did you make that one up?”
“Make it up?” said Bernie. “Can’t really say I—”
“Not just a natural-born public speaker,” Georgie said, “but a natural-born communicator in general.” He handed Bernie a check. “Here you go, pal. Earned every penny.”
I watched carefully till Bernie folded the check and put it in his pocket, not his shirt pocket, where we’d run into problems before, or his back pants pocket, also unreliable once or twice in the past, but the front pants pocket, safe and sound with the car keys.
“Bourbon still your drink, Bernie?” Georgie said. “How about a shot of something to go along with that beer?”
“A little early for—”
Two shots of bourbon arrived. Glasses got clinked again.
“Communicators aren’t exactly thick on the ground in this business,” Georgie said. I could make out a stretch of ground through the window, saw nothing but a parking lot with a red car pulling in. “So why don’t I cut to the chase?”
That was the kind of thing I liked to hear. I got my back paws up under me, ready to move.
Bernie lowered his glass, tilted his head slightly to one side. That was a sign of his brain clicking into gear, and Bernie’s brain was one of the best things we had going for us at the Little Detective Agency. His brain and my nose: plenty of perps now wearing orange jump suits can tell you about that combo.
“Life’s not fair,” Georgie went on, losing me right away. “Man of your ability.” He shook his head.
“No complaints,” Bernie said.
“See, right there—the quality factor,” said Georgie. He took out a pack of cigarettes, offered one to Bernie. Bernie had quit smoking lots of times, but right now we were in the middle of one of his best efforts.
“Don’t think there’s smoking in here,” Bernie said.
“Hotel’s a client,” said Georgie. “Live a little.”
They lit up. Bernie took a deep drag, let the smoke out with a sigh. Poor Bernie. Smoke drifted over toward me. I was smelling how pleasant it smelled when I noticed the red car parking right beside our ride. Our ride’s a Porsche, but not the new fancy kind. It’s brown with yellow doors, very old, and the top went missing back when we were working the Hobbs case, a story for another time. A woman sat behind the wheel of the red car; she didn’t seem in a hurry to get out.
Georgie sipped his drink. “Like this bourbon?” he said.
“Very nice,” Bernie said.
“Tell you the truth, Bern,” Georgie began, and I missed some of what came next, on account of: Bern. Bernie hated that! In fact, the last guy who’d tried it, a carjacker from the East Valley, name escaping me at the moment, was now breaking rocks in the hot sun. Were we about to take down Georgie Malhouf? His mustache was really starting to bother me.
“… whole chain’s a client,” Georgie was saying, “including the Arbuckle Palace in LA. Check out the world around us. Security—my kind—is only going to get bigger.”
“What’s the other kind?” Bernie said.
Georgie made a motion with his hand, like he was waving away flying insects, although there were none around. I always know when insects are around: they’re very noisy. Birds are much quieter when they fly, kind of crazy.
“The other kind,” Georgie said, “is the lone wolf.” He leaned forward, wagged his finger at Bernie. “Headed for rapid extinction, Bern.” Sometimes things go by so fast you can’t keep up. For example, Georgie’s wagging finger had curly black hair on the back, always interesting, but there was no time to dwell on it, not if wolves were suddenly in the picture. I knew wolves, but only from Animal Planet. I glanced around the bar: no wolves, no creatures of any kind, except humans and me. But the fur on my neck was up and stiff.
“I’m offering you a job,” Georgie said. He looked over at me. “You and Chet, of course.”
“You mean you want to subcontract a case out to us?” Bernie said.
“Nope,” said Georgie. “I’m talking about a real permanent-type job, assistant VP Operations, Malhouf International Investigations, eighty-five K to start, plus benefits and two weeks’ paid vacation.”
Bernie shook his head, a very quick side-to-side. Charlie— that’s Bernie’s kid, who we don’t see nearly enough since the divorce—has the exact same headshake. All of a sudden Bernie looked younger.
Georgie sat back in his chair. His eyes, dark to begin with, darkened some more. “Not even going to think about it?” he said.
“I appreciate the offer,” Bernie said. “But it wouldn’t be a good fit.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Georgie said.
“See?” said Bernie, and he laughed.
Bernie has a great laugh, so much fun to listen to—the way it comes from deep down—but Georgie didn’t seem to be enjoying it. “Always considered you a serious individual, Bern,” he said. “Must be some reason you’re not taking me seriously.”
Georgie leaned forward. “I do my research. That means I know what you’ve been making. Or not making, to put it more accurately. Christ, I know about the tin futures. And even the goddamn pants. What else? You’re late on your kid’s tuition and you’re upside down on your house.”
Upside down on our house? I gave up on understanding Georgie. But whatever he was talking about seemed to have gotten to Bernie. When Bernie’s angry, a little jaw muscle starts clenching, and it was clenching now. He put down his drink and started to rise. “Thanks for the drink,” he said. “The answer’s no.”
Georgie shrugged; I always watch for that one. “Gotta do what you gotta do,” he said, rising too. He took something from his pocket, something that looked like another check, and held it out to Bernie.
“What’s this?” Bernie said, not taking it.
“Ten grand,” Georgie said.
“What the hell?”
“Not for you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s for Chet.”
“I don’t understand,” Bernie said. Ten grand! Maybe it was a prize or something. I’d once won a whole box of Slim Jims at an agility contest, but no time to go into that now. All I thought was: take the money!
“I want to buy Chet,” Georgie said. “Have him come work for us.”
What was this? Something without Bernie?
“Chet’s not for sale,” Bernie said. His face had gone pale, practically white. “Not now, not ever.”
“Fifteen grand,” Georgie said. “Final offer.”
Bernie didn’t touch the ten-grand check. And as for the five-hundred-dollar check—this was getting pretty complicated, with two checks in play—Bernie dug it out of his pocket and dropped it on the table. I was sorry to see it go, but only a bit. We walked out of the bar, me and Bernie. Was I proud of him or what?
© 2011 Spencer Quinn