THE MAGIC CAPE CAPER
Middle-aged wise-cracking private eye Nick Christmas and his sidekick receptionist investigate the abduction of Dr. Bertram James, inventor of an invisibility cloak for Syntek Labs, with a confrontation at a Portland, Oregon, foundry, a surprise resolution to the kidnapping – and an exciting climax.
The door to the office was already half open when my newly hired receptionist/secretary Randi (short for “Miranda”) Degrotti pushed it aside without using the intercom first. “I hope you don’t mind, Nicky,” Randi said, “but Mrs. James just stopped by without an appointment.” She admitted a woman in a broad-brimmed black hat who lifted the veil to reveal startlingly violet eyes crinkled with care.
“I’m sorry but it’s urgent,” said Mrs. James who wobbled in on stiletto-heeled shoes that looked like stilts though they did show off her well-toned legs as did her short black wraparound skirt.
I knew what Randi was doing so adeptly after only two weeks working for my newly formed detective agency up on the second floor of this old brick building with “1910” carved into its arched entrance. She wasn’t letting on that so far we’d had only routine credit card fraud cases and petty thefts that had little chance of resolution—and all walk-ins like Mrs. James.
I got up from the computer at my desk and met her halfway as she grabbed my fingers more than my hand. “Take a seat, Mrs. James.” I reached out to help her into the black Naugahyde captain’s chair angled at the side of a desk cluttered only with unpaid bills. It wasn’t an offer just to make her feel comfortable. I was afraid she was about to crumple, she acted so distraught.
She sank into the cushion that gave out with a quiet hiss, taking care to keep the flap of her skirt secure with her black purse which she perched in her lap, knees squeezed together so tightly they’d turned white. That seemed noteworthy since her legs were tanned and I could tell she wasn’t wearing panty hose, probably because even at mid-morning it was unseasonably warm for only the end of May. I may not be Sherlock but I am skilled at noting such details, however irrelevant, especially when it comes to beautiful women, this one appearing close to my own age.
I noticed Randi still at the door frowning at my glance, clearly not as impressed with my talent for observation. Fortunately, Mrs. James was still looking down and hadn’t caught my glance at her or that little exchange with my dutiful secretary.
“Would you like anything?” Randi said to our prospective client. “Tea? Coffee? Ice-cold water?” She definitely knew how to sell without seeming like it.
Mrs. James blinked eyelids lavender, too, more, I thought, from lack of sleep than eye shadow. “How nice. Water, maybe? My throat’s awfully dry.”
Randi went back to the water cooler in the anteroom on the other side of the reception counter where I heard an odd clicking.
“She’s quite the looker you’ve got there,” said Mrs. James. “Young, petite, blonde, blue-eyed—like someone who walked right out of an old dime detective novel.”
“I like to keep some stereotypes alive and well,” I tried to joke, still hoping to put her at ease. “But can you believe I picked her for her office skills? And maybe just a little for that perky personality. She’s actually turning out to be more of a Gal Friday.”
She pursed her lips, the hint of a weak smile beginning. “I believe—half of what you said.”
“A little skepticism’s healthy, especially in this field,” I returned.
Randi came back in with a glass and set the cork coaster down on a narrow end table beside the chair. “Anything else?” She regarded me a moment, I guess to know whether I wanted anything, too. I gave a slight shake of my head.
“Not right now,” Mrs. James answered.
Randi glanced over her shoulder at us with an inscrutable expression before reluctantly swinging the door shut with a quiet tick.
Leaning my back against the desk, arms akimbo, I finally asked, “So what’s so urgent that you need the help of a lowly detective agency like ours?”
“Not so lowly,” she said, “just the only other one in town close by.” She paused. “I need you to find my husband. You do do missing persons, right?”
“One of my specialties,” I said though of course I hadn’t had such a case yet since recently leaving the force and starting up this agency. “How long has he been missing?”
She looked down again then haltingly added, “My husband Bertram disappeared three days ago. I know how crucial it is not to let the trail go cold.”
“That’s true. But what’s wrong with the police?”
She bit down on her bottom lip. “No progress. And I’m getting desperate.”
“Bertram James,” I said, tapping a forefinger at my mustache. “Sounds familiar.”
“The inventor scientist at Syntek Labs?” she said. “He’s been in the news lately.”
I rubbed my lips, thinking. “Some kind of cloaking device, wasn’t it?” I couldn’t help falling into “Star Trek” jargon. I’d been a fan of the original re-runs because of my father.
“Actually a ‘cape of invisibility,’ yes,” she said, a hand unclasping her handbag and pulling something out. “Like the caps of Mercury and Perseus, as he likes to point out. Except this cloak really works. Sort of anyway as a more sophisticated camouflage. It’s complicated.”
Her fashionable outfit, though quite soigné, like her bearing, seemed unduly somber considering her reason for being here. It posed a marked contrast to Randi’s short bright floral shift that better fit the late spring day beginning outside. “You don’t seem particularly happy about that achievement,” I said. “In fact, you look like you’re on your way to a funeral.”
She fluttered that paper uncertainly. “I’m not. Not yet anyway.”
“What exactly did he do to you—or not do? Has he been unfaithful or did he abscond with money from your nest egg to help fund such a project?” Standard PI fare I’d been asked to follow up on but had had the effrontery to turn down so far—a luxury those bills suggested I wouldn’t be able to afford much longer.
“Nothing quite so trite.” Her voice had lowered to a Lauren Bacall timbre that only enhanced her intrigue, though I think she was doing it more to dismiss such insipid questions.
I leaned forward. “What then?”
Lips thinned, she snapped the clasp of her purse shut with a harsh click. “They think he died!”
I lurched back. “What?”
“That’s what the cops are saying,” she said. “But I don’t believe it for a second.”
“So—there’s no evidence he’s really dead?”
She unpinned her hat, crumpling the brim with one hand, and shook her head no, fluffy long black hair falling over the padded shoulders of her short black bolo-type jacket. “Not for sure.”
“You’re dressed as if he already is. What makes you think he isn’t?”
“No ‘corpus’ to the ‘delicti.’ I’m dressed this way because I—I miss him. But frankly I think ‘dead’ is the last thing they’d want him to be.”
“And who’s this mysterious ‘they’?”
“The ones who stole the prototype of the cape—and apparently him, too.”
Now I shook my head. “This all sounds pretty—speculative, Mrs. James.”
“Please,” she said, scooting forward with a tearing sound of her skin against the leather to get up. Then she reached over to proffer what was in her hand, setting her hat back down on the chair. “Call me Rae Anne. The other just makes me more depressed right now.”
“Rae Anne then,” I said, asking her to do the same to me. “‘Nick’ sounds more neighborly than ‘Mr. Christmas.’”
I looked down at the photo she’d given me paper-clipped over the check. “A handsome fellow even with that full beard.” With his white-flecked head of hair, he reminded me of one of the cough drop Smith brothers, his beard more neatly trimmed as almost everybody’s was.
“It tickles,” she added, distracted.
Self-consciously I brushed at my mustache, knowing my late wife Angie found my facial hair surprisingly soft when we kissed. Then again I was always careful to be gentle. I removed the photo from the check and widened my eyes so instinctively I didn’t have a chance to think about looking too much like a dog slavering at a raw steak.
She fidgeted at my reaction. “Isn’t a thousand dollars sufficient as a retainer?”
I cleared my throat and rattled the check. “It’s—fine.” I was still trying to act cavalier.
“Then you can begin right away?”
“I—need some clues,” I stuttered. “First off, why did everyone think he was dead?”
“The director of Syntek Labs was the first to call me about the blood and tell me that Bert and his ‘magic cape’—that’s what Bert liked to call it—were both missing.”
“Bertram’s lab assistant was the first to see that when she came to work a little late that morning.”
I wasn’t exactly getting the information in a linear way. That’s real-life for you. “The police verified it was his?”
It sounded like she was choking when she said, “His blood type anyway: A positive.”
“And this lab assistant?”
“Carrie Minor,” she said, shifting in the chair again.
“She’s been working with him just over a year now. Dedicated even if she’s invariably tardy.”
“She knows a lot about the invention, too?”
“I would certainly think so. But she’s so upset since that day she hasn’t been back to work yet.”
“Maybe that’s a good thing,” I said. “Her life could be in danger, too.”
“The police did say they’d patrol her neighborhood until they hear something from the thieves—or the kidnappers if that’s really what they are.”
I hesitated. “It doesn’t sound good, Mrs.—I mean, Rae Anne.”
“But why would they want to kill him if he’s the only one who knows how to make more? The goose that laid the golden egg?”
Of course they may have only wanted the golden egg to sell to the highest bidder—though she had a point. Having him as a hostage could net a much bigger bounty—if he hadn’t been seriously injured in the abduction. “No lab results from the police yet to confirm anything?”
“Not yet,” she said.
“And no word from the supposed kidnappers with any kind of ransom demand?”
“Same thing,” she said.
“Forensics takes a long time to get back with a full report—often weeks because of the backlog, among other things. It’s not like the CSI programs on TV.”
“We can’t wait that long. That’s why I’ve sought you out.”
I didn’t want to alarm her any more than she was already but I had to lay the cards on the table. “It’s possible they’ve gotten the formula from him already—and might not need him anymore.”
She raised her softly rounded chin. “He wouldn’t give it up so easily. Even though he’s left a detailed log somewhere and kept the prototype locked in the lab safe, he was getting ready to submit data to the patent office before the presentation this weekend. They must have caught wind of that—though it was considered top secret. You know how things leak out these days. Even I wouldn’t normally know except Bert didn’t want me to worry that he’d be gone most of Saturday with Carrie for the demonstration. I was flattered he was able to do that much because he’s been acting strange lately, keeping things from me more than usual.”
“If you’re right,” I mused, “he’d definitely be more valuable alive as a hostage. But the blood—” As soon as it was out of my mouth, I realized the obvious conclusion.
She gave voice to it softly. “Something obviously went wrong.”
I waved the check still in my hand like a flag so she’d consider it as good a sign for her as it was to me. “I’ll do what I can, Rae Anne. We have to hope for the best.”
“Too bad you can’t guarantee a happy ending.”
“If I had that kind of power, I’d put myself out of business.” At the rate I was going, it might be hard to tell the difference.
“Think of all the good you’d do, though.” Her lips twitched as she tried a half-smile.
I stared at her a moment before drawing a notepad out of my corduroy jacket, careful not to expose the Glock 9 mm 26 in my shoulder holster and scare her more than she’d just scared me. I had a lot to uphold, not just in her enchanting eyes but mine, too. Focus, I thought, on the process, not the results. “The Syntek director might be a good place to start?” I was testing the waters.
“I doubt it. He’s not up on much of what goes on in the building like you’d expect. And he and Bert had a kind of falling out after Denton decided to transition into administration rather than research.”
“I should have his name anyway. One way or another he’ll have to know some of what we find out.”
“Dr. Denton Strauss. But I think you’ll get more out of Carrie.”
I thanked her and led her out myself, a hand at the small of her back though she seemed steadier now even in those high-heeled sandals. Maybe I’d already had an effect on her just by assuring her I’d get right on it—though to say I had misgivings was putting it mildly.
When I showed her out the front door and waved goodbye as confidently as I could before she started down the stairs, reminding her to report back any new information, I turned around to see Randi watering a philodendron she’d insisted on bringing into the office her second day of work. “You’ve got to have living things to make it seem more inviting here, Nicky,” she’d explained.
Now, though, Randi turned around and said, “A typical doctor’s wife, isn’t she, even if he’s not the typical doctor. Quite the looker.”
“Funny,” I said. “That’s exactly what she said about you.” Then it dawned on me. “You weren’t listening in on the intercom—were you?”
She held up her thumb and forefinger which I saw were polished pink to match the flowers on her dress. “Maybe just a wee bit,” she smiled.
“But, Randi,” I said, “that’s confidential.”
“Didn’t you hire me as your ‘confidential secretary’? That’s what you meant by calling me your ‘Gal Friday,’ right?”
She had me there. However dated those terms—dating me, no doubt—that was how I’d put it.
“Then I have to be in the know if I’m going to be an asset for you.” She tilted her head endearingly at me with that winsome smile she’d offered during the interview that convinced me she was the best candidate—not to mention the prettiest. Hey, looks do matter, especially in a business as precarious as this one. “Maybe I can even play an important part in your plan of attack—especially if you ply me with a sit-down lunch at The Grinder?”
She knew that was my favorite place to grab a bite to eat, largely because it was right across the street. I’d brought back some take-out for both of us while we each worked at our respective computers, sometimes splitting a sandwich, her favorite so far being a Reuben, mine a turkey and Swiss cheese on rye.
“So now on the eve of our first major case, you’re asking for more perks?”
“You did call me ‘perky,’ didn’t you?” she teased.
It was hard to be upset with her, at least for long—a disturbing precedent. “You’re full of surprises.”
“You don’t know the half of it yet, Nicky.” She gathered up her capacious purse that looked almost half her size before I had a chance to turn down her offer of my offering. “But seriously, I’ll pay my half, don’t worry. I’m not the type to take advantage of people.” Then with that half-turn of her head, she added, “Much.”
“I haven’t even given you your first paycheck yet.”
She made her lips do that Shirley Temple pucker-pout. “I had a little before I started here. But maybe we could deduct it from what you owe me?”
“I have a feeling, getting to know you, I might end up in the hole.”
She looked down shyly as she hooked the purse strap over a bare shoulder because of her halter dress. “I can’t help it if I have a good appetite. But I’ve also got a really high metabolism. Look at the bright side. You’d only be fueling my fire—and, in the long run, benefiting yourself.”
This girl was good! But wasn’t that bad? Then I remembered the check which I extracted from my breast pocket, fumbling awkwardly with my gun in the process. “We do finally have some money to play with.”
“So I can do something for you—and actually earn money at it?”
“You really are a tease, you know,” I said.
“Isn’t that part of my charm?” she answered.
“Come on, dear girl. Forget the conniving. My treat this time, then I’ll take you to the credit union and introduce you around there so you can do this on your own and fatten our agency’s coffers for a change.”
“And maybe get a little change back?” she said hopefully.
“Touché,” I said.
She surprised me again by taking my arm as we locked up our second-story office for the lunch hour and went down the stairs side by side.
“I don’t know why we didn’t do this earlier,” she said.
“We didn’t have cases that required this kind of field work.”
“Field work?” she brightened.
“Whoa,” I said. “We have to go at this slowly and methodically. Someone still has to man the office, you know.”
“You mean, naturally, ’woman’ it,” she played with me. “What with the phone ringing off the hook the way it has?”
I could see I wasn’t likely to cross the finish line before she did.
As we stepped across the street with its sparse traffic, I looked up at the café’s sign, some of the neon letters sizzling and stuttering so that only the “Rind” part of the name stood steady. I’d grown to favor convenience over class on the force, leaving it to Angie to ease me more into class-acts. It wasn’t much different here. “Don’t expect much,” I apologized ahead of time.
“The food’s been good,” she said sprightly.
When we walked in, an old tarnished brass bell jingling above us, I began to see things the way Randi might. It would have been considered kind of “eclectic chic,” I suppose, if you liked scarlet padded, creaky wooden captain chairs that looked like discards out of a speakeasy from Prohibition days. I tried to cushion the blow for her with a little humor. “It has what you might call a certain je nais se quois,” I started, “if you like nothing going with anything else.”
She replied with nervy verve. “It’s fine, Nicky. We’re going out instead of eating in!”
“The view is better up front here,” I said, thinking at least it was less dingy if we could see some of that sunlight outside—and being less center stage to the few patrons there.
“Of the sidewalk,” I said, “for people-watching.” Except, of course, there weren’t any people passing by. This was off the beaten track as was everything in Ashborough if you weren’t on Main Street near the courthouse since this was the county seat.
Randi giggled, a delightful response considering. Taking the opportunity to appear chivalrous, however incongruous it might be here, I pulled the chair out for her, hoping she wouldn’t get slivers from the chipped paint on the arm. If the class wasn’t quite indigenous, we’d just have to import some. The two old couples huddled towards the back like ragged sackcloth stared at me hollow-eyed as if I were crazy until they took in the young petite blonde so brightly colored that I was doing it for. Then they just looked back at me even more incredulously as if to say, “She’s with the likes of you?”
The waitress Cher, a young girl with a dishwater blonde ponytail and a butterfly tattoo on her forearm—at least it wasn’t a skull and crossbones or a dragon—came up chawing her gum open-mouthed and asked, “Now who would this pretty lady be with you today, Nicky?”
I introduced the two of them, both smiling but each in her own way, Cher looking her up and down like a heifer for sale, Randi blinking back with a strained smile not sure yet quite how to react.
“You wouldn’t have a skinny latte or anything like that, would you?” Randi said warily.
“You’re right,” answered Cher. “We wouldn’t. Coffee either leaded or unleaded or with cream.” She looked back behind the counter. “On second thought, looks like it’s only leaded right now. I’d have to make a special pot if you wanted it any other way.”
“Maybe just a Coke then.”
“Pepsi okay?” she smiled.
Cher looked at me. “So far your gal’s batting zero.”
“Gal—Friday,” Randi offered tentatively.
I felt like an arbitrator. “I’ll just take mine ‘regular.’”
“You’re easy, Nicky,” Cher beamed. “Know what you two want yet?”
Randi shifted in her seat. “May we see a menu?”
“Sure thing,” said Cher. She brought the coffee and Pepsi right away, slapping down a couple of the plastic-covered menus from a rack at the counter where the register was. “I’ll just give you a minute for a good old look-see.” She made it sound like something randy.
I leaned across the table and chuckled, “Trés chic, huh?”
Again Randi tittered. “I like her. She calls you ‘Nicky’ the way I do. She definitely likes you.”
“I’m a good tipper,” I said.
“Don’t sell yourself short.” She was scanning the menu, a polished fingernail trying to trace down the sticky cover.
“So what’s your take on this case so far? You heard the story.”
“Well, I’m guessing there’s a mole at Syntek. The people that attacked him knew just where to go and how to sneak in to take him right out from under their noses. And at a tech operation doing such sophisticated research? It’s got to have security like nobody’s business.”
I didn’t bother opening the menu, already knowing my choice. “But these assailants also hurt him in the process—maybe mortally.”
“He must have put up quite a fight, but then that cape’s got to be worth millions.” I was thinking, what with her flair for exaggeration, she would have been more accurate replacing the “m” with a “b.”
“No one was there to come to his aid—though I don’t know why someone didn’t hear the ruckus or register the break-in while it was in progress.”
“That’s definitely odd but it sounds like they were banking on the assistant being late for work,” said Randi. “They knew her routine. It’s no wonder, though, she hasn’t gone back to work yet. On top of happening onto that blood, she’s got to feel guilty.”
“Schadenfreude,” I muttered. “I know the feeling.”
“What did you say?”
“‘Bad joy.’ Happy she wasn’t there because she might have been taken, too—but sad she wasn’t so she could have helped stop the crime.”
Cher came back to the table just then. “Ready Eddy?”
“I’m pretty predictable,” I said, tapping the plastic cover of the menu the way I would a poker hand I wanted to keep pat.
“Something I’ve got to work on about him,” Randi muttered back linking up a conspiratorial eye with Cher.
The waitress clicked one side of her lips painted a little too red. “Makes my job easier, though.” She looked from Randi to me. “Same ol’ same ol’?”
“You got it,” I said to her as I pointed my finger at her like a gun which made her giggle.
Cher turned back towards Randi with a crooked smile. “And you, pretty miss?”
“What’s the soup du jour?” When Cher said split pea, Randi wrinkled up her small nose. “Guess I’ll try the breast of chicken Caesar salad, light on the dressing?” It was fare I was surprised to see, but even a place like The Grinder, I guess, tried to keep up with the times.
Cher seemed to take delight in rejoining, “You got it, gal,” and spun around to fill our orders but with her own brand of giggle still lingering in her throat.
“She’s an easy audience,” I shrugged to Randi with half a smile.
“Only because she’s got a schoolgirl crush on you.”
I looked around at the patrons. “Slim pickings.”
Cher delivered my coffee with a “whoops” over her face, spilling some of it in the saucer which otherwise shone the dull white of gnawed bone. The Grinder could at least be proud of something. “Lunch will be up in no time. Not much of a rush to our rush hour lately.” She returned to her place behind the counter, wiping it with a rag and replacing the napkins to keep busy.
“To her I’m a breath of fresh air. She thinks I’m a living example of James Garner in ‘The Rockford Files.’ But then she’s easily impressed. I’m guessing she doesn’t get out much either.”
“‘Either’?” Randi tilted her head at me, her long hair brushing over the bare shoulder of her open-shoulder halter neckline. I didn’t want to elaborate but the way she looked at me I think she figured an explanation would come out eventually. “I have a feeling all that’s about to change.”
Leaving Randi to check the internet for what she could find on Rae Anne James and her husband as well as Carrie Minor, I decided to find out in person what the police knew. That meant meeting Detective Chandra Brown of the Nohomish County Sheriff’s Department where I’d worked before.
In the workplace tradition of cop colleagues relying on patronyms, I couldn’t really address her as “Brown” the way she always called me “Christmas” for fear of my answering to a far worse title. In a Dickensian quirk of fate, Chandie, as I called her in private, was black—though more accurately milk chocolate—if not quite as sweet. Hence in public I had to resort to titles instead—either “Lieutenant” or “Detective.” Considering my new position heading up my own detective agency now, I opted for the military one.
She was sighing while filling in a report form on her monitor when I found her in the office, not her favorite place to be. I knew the feeling. “Can’t you bother somebody else?” Her lips pinched back into her puffed up cheek as if she were already fed up with the tedium of the day—it couldn’t be me yet, could it?—though she had a couple of hours to go before her shift was over.
“I’m on a case, Lieutenant,” I smiled, carefully avoiding calling it “the case” since it was the first I’d had of any significance.
She turned around wrenching the jabot at her neck, pulling down on the bunched up jacket to her uniform and adjusting the navy skirt she wore instead of the striped pants, serving as she was today as the most public of public servants. “I was afraid of that.”
“Bertram James ring any bells?”
Her already wide dark nostrils flared as a hand slapped impatiently at her lap. “The chemist inventor.”
“You’ve got the picture. I presume you’ve taken the lead on the possible kidnapping over the Ashborough police—and that Captain ‘Heck’ has assigned a team?” I figured as much since the county had more elaborate facilities at its disposal.
In again another Dickensian twist, Captain Nelson Hector’s name had been abbreviated by the other officers privately to “Heck” since he had a notoriously short fuse for someone even more often in the public eye. Another reason why I was glad I’d turned “private” despite the financial insecurities of my “freedom”—even on the eve of an early pension if I’d lasted just another few years. But Angie hadn’t—so I hadn’t either.
“Are you kidding?” she fumed. “Not enough to justify one just yet.”
I brushed knuckles at the lapel of my signature corduroy jacket, leather elbow patches and all. “I represent Mrs. James.”
She wriggled her thick eyebrows at me. “Do you now?” The crabby cynicism she’d exercised so often before made me fume inwardly now, too. Working on my dissembling skills, I tried not to show it, leaving such finessing for the future.
“She seems convinced he’s not dead but rather kidnapped. Any evidence yet to support that?”
She gave a half shake of her head. “Not so far. The blood left behind—and in a weird pattern at that—looks bad. Forensics took pictures for the file but it’s a head-scratcher. And no ransom note after this long? Seems like handwriting on the wall time to me.”
I shook my head in concert with her as a way of winning her over, showing my good side to make her show me hers—if she had one today. It didn’t look promising. “Has Doc Bones divulged any other clues from the crime scene that you can share with me?” I used the more respectable term of endearment the department had bestowed on the county ME and pathologist Everett Boehner (we didn’t feel we could use his real last name in polite society without snickering).
One thick eyebrow was still raised. She was even less able to dissemble than I was. “Without a body?” Sadly, Doc Bones had the disconcerting bearing of a leprechaun and a disheartening slouch to go with it that made him resemble Igor with only the hint of a hump. As if that wasn’t enough, he wore a constant if somewhat off-putting smile after working almost thirty years in a job he said he loved, rendering cadavers into what eerily sounded like best friends—presumably the case. He also was known to keep his medical findings close to his vest until it was absolutely legal and circumspect to release them, especially with unattended deaths or messier ones like this involving more blood than typical but no corpse. Heart attacks were “cleaner,” happening in this day and age of medical miracles about as often as winning the lottery. No wonder zombies these days were all the rage; we had too many living examples shambling around everywhere. “You’re more apt to get something sooner from Beanie in Forensics.”
“Beanie” was much younger and more approachable, that handle an affectionate shortening for Bennet Randall—though he did seem the type that in another age might have worn a beanie on his head, especially considering his scarecrow height that made him look like Jughead from the Archie comics my father cherished—or to be more “modern,” “Beaker” from Sesame Street. His freckles and stray red hair, with a cowlick even, reinforced such off-the-beam comparisons.
“But listen, Christmas. If either one turns up something and I deem it ‘shareable’—a huge ‘IF,’ you understand—you got to promise you’ll stay out of our hair.”
I cupped a hand toward my breast. “Who, me?”
“Yeah, you,” she said. “The meddling muddler.”
That, unfortunately, had become my pet soubriquet among the Nohomish County corps while I still worked there, much to my chagrin. But hell, a bad reputation is at least a reputation, free advertisement of a sort—and the price was right up my alley. Too bad the department offered no prospect for clients. But maybe my name would still get around anyway to the unsuspecting public despite its still being “mud” to most here.
“I mean it, Christmas. I need your oath of honor—assuming you know what the word even means.”
I raised my hand in the Boy Scout salute. “Truth, justice and the American Way.”
“That’s Superman’s pledge, not the Boy Scout’s,” she groused.
“Close enough,” I jousted back.
“You’ve got to come clean with us, too, if you catch wind of something we need to know.”
My hand was still raised so I nodded with a look up at it. “You know me.”
“That’s the problem,” she said.
“I swear to do my best. How’s that?” I didn’t hear her response very well, probably for the best. But I soldiered on. “Got anything new for me right now?” Under these circumstances, I was willing to take anything I could get.
She looked around to make sure no one was nearby, a little hard to do because she, like the other detectives, was enclosed in a padded half-walled cubicle that reminded me of an oversized Skinner box for rats. They didn’t have any other way out either except to other cages. “Captain Heck would kill me if he knew I was leaking even this much, so I mean it, Christmas. Tell me if this leads to anything and I’ll share whatever I get back from Doc Bones—or Beanie.”
“Go on, Lieutenant,” I said, hoping that honoring her title so obviously would assuage her rancorous demeanor some—though that would certainly raise hackles if I ever used language like that in her presence—which at times I’d done just to get a rise out of her. After all, such words weren’t “proper cop talk.”
She grimaced me a kind of smile. Grudging but better than nothing. “No fingerprints, so whoever took Dr. James away after the bludgeoning tried not to leave much of a trail. But no matter how smart these people think they are, they always forget something. I’m not telling you anything there.”
“That’s what keeps us on our toes.”
“Funny you should put it that way,” she said. “At the edge of the pool of dried blood, we found the partial front print from the sole of a boot that left behind some kind of residue.”
Her high forehead wrinkled. “Metal filings. “Not sure what type of metal yet. The higher than normal radiation reading was to be expected because the doctor was forced to open the leaded safe that held the prototype.”
I fingered my mustache again, mulling over the implications. “How high is ‘higher’?”
“‘Normal’ on a Geiger counter is 100 clicks per minute. This was around 500.”
I screwed up my face. “Is that bad?”
“Dangerous,” she said, “only if exposed for too long.”
“Something is better than nothing,” I said though that was getting to be another mantra I didn’t much care for lately. I kept thinking of that thousand-dollar check back at the office baiting me to do better than this.
I started to leave.
“Remember what I warned you about, Nicholas,” she said with a finger pointing at me imperiously.
At least she’d called me by my first name though the full formal one teachers called me in elementary school when I’d done something wrong. Still, that seemed promising. I was desperate for anything positive—even a positive rebuke.
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