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Authors: Spencer Quinn

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Thereby Hangs a Tail (6 page)

BOOK: Thereby Hangs a Tail
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“Che—et?”

I looked up, one of my front paws poised high. Bernie gave me a quick little head shake. That was one of our silent signals. It meant no. I could always dig another hole later, even a bunch of them. All of a sudden I was in a digging mood.

“Che—et?”

Bernie gave me a finger wiggle. That meant come. I went over, stood beside him, a real team player, but at the same time wondering about the possibility of digging under the fence that separated our place from old man Heydrich’s. Why hadn’t I thought of that before?

A big woman with short dark hair, except for strange gray side wings, appeared in the doorway of the plane. She had the fluffball in her arms.

“Princess,” called Adelina, waving her cowboy hat. She ran toward the plane. Bernie and I followed. The big woman came down the staircase. Princess, even smaller than I’d thought from the photo, had her nose in the air and eyes half shut, not looking at any of us. Right from the get-go I wanted to give her a quick little nip. We were off to a bad start.

“Oh, Princess,” said Adelina, taking her the moment the big woman’s foot touched the ground, “I missed you so so much.” She kissed Princess’s face a number of times. Did Princess actually turn away her tiny head? Maybe. And if a tail was wagging somewhere under all that fluff, I couldn’t see it.

“This,” said Adelina, turning to Bernie, “is Princess.”

“Um,” said Bernie.

“Say hi to the nice detective, Princess.”

Princess was back to gazing at the sky.

“And this is Nance, our trainer,” Adelina said.

“Bernie Little,” said Bernie, shaking hands with Nance. The hands of most women got lost in Bernie’s, but not this one’s.

Nance had a deeply tanned face, also wore bright blue eye makeup, the combination having a strange effect on me, like I’d want to lick that makeup right off, something I’d never do, of course. She gave Bernie a long look and said, “Do you really think Princess is in danger?”

“No,” said Bernie.

No? Just like that, no? What if we get fired? Bernie: two grand a day!

“Then—” said Nance.

“But every once in a while, a threat like this turns out to be real.”

“Exactly,” said Adelina. She turned to Nance, those green eyes narrowing. “I thought we’d been through this.”

Nance looked down. Humans often had complicated relationships with each other. In our nation—the nation within the nation, as Bernie calls it—we can get pretty complicated, too, but we have ways of sorting things out much quicker. I was used to these awkward human moments, almost always found them interesting, even entertaining. I opened my mouth, unrolled my tongue, rolled it back in.

Adelina turned her attention to Princess. You’d be surprised how often humans use one of my guys to end their awkward moments, if Princess could be called one of my guys. “Does little Princess need some time to herself ?” Adelina had two voices— a baby voice for Princess and the icicle voice for the rest of the world. I preferred the icicle voice. Now came more kisses. “Poor Princess, cooped up on the nasty plane.”

Cooped up? Princess would have had plenty of room in a mailbox. I glanced at Bernie: his face was blank.

“Nance?” said Adelina. “Is it safe?”

Nance bent down, patted the tarmac with her hand. “Yes.”

“Not too hot?” Adelina said. “Remember Barcelona?”

“It’s just right,” Nance said, her voice sharpening.

Adelina gave her a look, also sharp, and gently lowered Princess to the runway. Hey: she had legs. Princess extended them in a way that reminded me of that staircase coming down from the plane, a thought I thought would lead to another, but did not. Whew. Slow it down, big guy.

I slowed it down, kept my eye on Princess. Her paws, so small, touched the tarmac. She stood still, her eyes, huge and dark, on nothing in particular. What would I do in her place, at a time like this? Give myself a shake, no doubt about it. Come to think of it, why not now, even in my place? No reason I could see. I gave myself a restrained kind of shake, grew aware that those huge dark eyes seemed to be fixed on me. And guess what. The very next moment, Princess gave herself a shake. If you could call it that: the movement was so tiny, really just a slight trembling, as though a breeze had ruffled her fur, that I almost missed it.

“Have you ever seen her do that before?” Adelina said.

“Never,” said Nance.

“Do you think there’s something wrong with her?” Adelina said. “Oh my God—is she sick?”

“Looks okay to me,” said Bernie.

The huge dark eyes shifted over to Bernie. For the first time that I’d seen, Princess began to move under her own power. Hard to describe it, exactly. Her little legs were going quite fast, a quick trot, you might call it, or even running, but she was hardly getting anywhere. She reached the edge of the tarmac—

“Not on the ground, Princess,” said Adelina. “It’s dirty.”

—and kept on, around a dusty thick-leaved plant—where I’d have lifted my leg, for sure, and almost to the Porsche. Princess gazed at it, then trotted back, her legs almost a blur. And her eyes: was that an anxious look I saw? I was almost feeling sorry for her—how crazy was that?—when she regained the tarmac and stopped near Bernie. Then, eyes right on him but expressionless now, at least as far as I could tell—she squatted.

“Good girl,” Adelina said.

A yellowish pool began to spread across the tarmac. It got bigger and bigger, shockingly so. The smell was—I’ll admit it— fascinating. But that wasn’t the important part. The important part was the fact of the yellowish pool expanding quickly, the lead edge closing in on Bernie’s shoes, black leather lace-ups with an interesting smell of their own, speaking of smells. We’ll save that for later. The point now was that growing lake on the tarmac and the way Princess kept her eyes on Bernie the whole time.

“A long flight,” Bernie said, stepping away.

Princess did something I’d never seen before. Still squatting, with no interruption of flow, she shifted, kind of like a crab, in his direction.

“I think she likes you,” Adelina said.

“Definitely,” said Nance.

“Well, um,” said Bernie, taking another step, raising one heel, and peering down at it: yes, damp.

At last Princess went dry. She straightened and stood still. For some reason, the tiny pink tip of her tiny tongue was sticking out, just barely.

“How about a treat for our little star?” said Adelina. “Any bacon bits?”

“I’m a little concerned about her weight,” Nance said, “so close to showtime and all.”

Her weight? There were dust balls under Bernie’s bed that weighed more than Princess.

“Just one won’t hurt,” Adelina said. “She’s had a hard day.”

Nance reached into her pocket, took out a bacon bit of a kind I’d never seen before, nice and thick. She approached Princess, hand out, smiling; Nance had very white teeth, big and even. Princess stayed still, putting in no more effort than letting her mouth fall slightly open as the bacon bit drew near. As for what got into me, how to explain? The facts are that suddenly I was airborne, in full flight, ears flat back; airborne and snagging that bacon bit right out of Nance’s hand at the exact moment of transfer, possibly knocking Princess over, but totally by accident. The whole thing was an accident, really. As for the bacon bit: delish. I tore across the runway, downed the bacon bit, skidded to a stop beside the plane’s big wheels and lifted my leg. No idea why and I didn’t absolutely need to go: but it felt good. And doesn’t everybody like feeling good? Or am I missing something?

SIX

T
here have been times in my life when I’ve felt pretty bad. Take when a mobster named Gulagov had me locked in a cage; or the day Leda packed up Charlie’s things and took him away, except for some weekends and holidays; or way back when I was a puppy in this apartment run by a drug dealer who liked to give me a kick when things weren’t going well. But had I ever felt worse than I did on that runway, moments after that little bacon bit episode? I was out there by the plane, my leg still raised, when I heard Adelina say, “You’re fired.”

We drove away from the airstrip. I rode shotgun as always, but not sitting straight like normal, instead lying on the seat, curled up, my head against the door. An awkward kind of position, with my silver tags digging into my neck a bit, but I let them. We were off the case, and all on account of me. After a while Bernie reached over and adjusted the tags. Then he popped a CD into the player and soon we had Billie Holiday. Bernie loved Billie Holiday. He pressed a button until “If You Were Mine” came on. “If You Were Mine” was Bernie’s current favorite. He sang along—Bernie has a very nice singing voice, have I mentioned that?—and cranked up the volume for the trumpet part at the end.

“Don’t you just love that trumpet?” he said.

I did. I loved the trumpet. The sound of the trumpet did things to me.

“Roy Eldridge,” Bernie said. “They called him Little Jazz, no idea why. Except, hmmm—hey! In contrast to Louis Armstrong, maybe, Satchmo being Big Jazz? Think that’s it?”

I had no idea what Bernie was saying, and besides: two grand a day! We needed it. With our finances a big mess, how could we be thinking about anything else except that two grand? Two grand a day, and all those days on the case, not sure how many. But Bernie didn’t seem to be thinking about the money. After “If You Were Mine” played for the umpteenth time— which is a lot—I felt Bernie glance over at me; couldn’t see him with how I was curled up, my gaze on the inside of the door but actually seeing nothing. All of a sudden he started laughing, just laughing and laughing. Don’t think I’d ever heard him laugh like that. It went on and on, left him wheezing and gasping, and still wheezing and gasping, he reached over and patted my back. It felt good. “They broke the mold,” he said, and then more “ha ha ha.”

Broke the mold. That was new. I knew mold, of course, from back in the Leda days. She’d been terrified of mold and had hired this guy to inspect the house, even though Bernie told her there was no mold out here in the desert. And the inspector didn’t find any, just gave Bernie a little grin, along with the bill. So breaking the mold had to mean when you didn’t find any, and Bernie was thinking back to that day and now finding something funny about it. I didn’t get the joke, but I sat up and moved closer to him. He scratched between my ears, the way I liked. My tail wagged, the slightest bit, all by itself. Not right, I know—I’d messed up big-time, been bad, not a team player, not a pro, and worst of all I’d let Bernie down—but I couldn’t help it.

“Good boy,” Bernie said.

When we got home, the phone message light was blinking. Humans had a way of inventing all these things—phone message lights, alarm clocks, bills—that disturbed their peace of mind. Bernie went right over and pressed a button. Our phone has a voice of its own that sounds like the voice of a robot in a DVD Bernie and I once saw. Don’t ask me to explain what the DVD was about, but at the end Bernie’d said, “Get it? The robot is the master.” Whoa. The robot was the master? I’d gotten scared, but too late, the movie being over.

But forget all that. Bernie pressed the button and our phone voice said, “Two new messages.”

Then: “Hey, Bern, my man.” I knew that friendly-on-the-outside voice: the guy in the Hawaiian shirt from Dry Gulch. “Chuck Eckel here. How ya doin’? Slight development on the tin futures front—give me a call when you get this. Like ASAP.”

And then: “Hi, Bernie.” Another voice I recognized, this one friendly not just on the outside but through and through: Janie, my groomer, the best groomer in the whole Valley. She had a great business with a great business plan: Janie’s Pet Grooming Service—We Pick Up and Deliver. Hadn’t seen her in a while, now that I thought about it. “It’s Janie. Just wondering what you heard from the vet.”

“Huh?” said Bernie. He picked up the phone. “Janie? Bernie Little here. Got your message. What’s this about the vet? Give me a call when you get a chance.” He punched in more numbers. “Chuck? Bernie Little.” Bernie listened. There’s this painter Bernie likes, can’t remember the name, who paints the human face— made a bundle, Bernie says—in a bunch of parts that don’t quite fit together. Bernie’s face started getting more and more that way as he listened on the phone. “An earthquake? I don’t . . . in Bolivia? But how does that . . . ? Three grand? But . . .” More listening, more coming apart of Bernie’s face, the nicest face around, in my opinion. “What does that mean, cover the position?” I could hear the voice on the other end, the friendly coating thinning out. “You never—” And thinning out some more. “Lose the whole investment? That’s not how I understood the . . . you need it by when?” Bernie hung up, but not before I heard Chuck Eckel say, “Close of business today, my man.”

When Bernie’s upset, even feeling a bit overwhelmed—not that anything ever really overwhelms Bernie—he has this habit of rubbing his eyes very hard with the knuckles of both hands. He was doing it now. Despite how I know nothing ever really overwhelms Bernie, the truth is I can’t stand seeing him rub his eyes that way. So I went over and bumped my head against his leg, and bumped it again when he didn’t seem to notice the first time.

BOOK: Thereby Hangs a Tail
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