Authors: Spencer Quinn
Tags: #FIC022000, #FIC050000
Bernie glanced over at me, lying under the table, one eye open. I gave my tail a thump, not very hard; sleep was on the way.
“I’ve got no comment,” Bernie said.
They exchanged a look I didn’t like seeing between them, cold on both sides. Suzie put her notebook away, took a few steps toward the door, then paused. “How’s Charlie?” she said, her voice softening.
Bernie took a breath, let it out slowly. I could feel big human emotions in the air, hers and his. “Fine,” Bernie said. “He’s fine.”
“Good,” said Suzie.
Bernie nodded. Suzie’s mouth opened as though she was going to say more, but she did not. Instead she moved toward the door. The eyelid over my one open eye got very heavy.
When I woke up, I heard Bernie’s voice coming from somewhere in the house. I couldn’t make out the words, but it was pleasant just lying there, listening to Bernie talk. After a bit, I got out from under the hall table, gave myself a stretch, the kind with my front legs way forward, my head down low, my butt up high—can’t begin to tell you how good that feels—and followed the sound of Bernie’s voice along the hall and into the office. He was on the phone, standing by the whiteboard and scribbling on it with a pen that had an interesting smell, although it wouldn’t really turn out to be edible, as I knew from experience. I sat on the rug beside Bernie, breathed in the pen smell. The whiteboard was covered in writing, arrows, drawings, almost every blank space filled. We believed in hard work at the Little Detective Agency.
“I understand,” Bernie said. “But I’d still appreciate it.” He listened for a moment, then said, “Thanks, I know the spot.” He hung up and saw me. “Got work to do, boy.” I beat him to the door.
And once outside I beat him to the car as well, leaping into the shotgun seat. One time Bernie tried doing the same trick. That was a funny day. He turned the key, shifted the shift—I love watching the shifting—and we were off.
The Valley goes on and on in all directions—have I mentioned that? We got on a freeway, then another, traffic stop-and-go at first, which made Bernie’s hands tense up on the wheel, but then it eased and we barreled along, the Porsche making a rumbling roar I loved and sights and smells zipping by so fast it would make your head spin. Mine doesn’t spin, exactly, but I can turn it pretty far back if I want, like really, really far, so that my nose is actually touching my—
“Chet! What the hell are you doing?”
I whipped my head around straight, sat up tall and still, eyes front, a professional through and through.
We followed the freeway up through a mountain pass, past the last developments and strip malls—the air so cool and clean it made my nostrils twitch—and down the other side, into the desert. Soon we were on two-lane blacktop, pretty much all by ourselves. “What if we just kept going?” Bernie said. “Kept going and never stopped.” I knew the answer to that one from experience: we’d run out of gas. I glanced over at Bernie. He was patting his pockets, searching for cigarettes. Eventually he found a bent one under his seat and lit up. Bernie took a deep drag, held the smoke in for a long time, then let it out and said, “Christ.” I loved the smell of smoke but didn’t like to see Bernie so worried. What was he worried about? I had no idea. All I knew was that when he worried, so did I. I scratched at the seat a bit with one of my paws and felt better.
After a while, the airstrip appeared in the distance, a few small planes gleaming in the sun and a big red flag—although Bernie says I’m no good with colors so don’t take my word for it— fluttering in the breeze. Soon we turned off the two-lane blacktop onto a dirt road that twisted back and forth up a hillside. Looking back I could see dust clouds swirling behind us, and a faint memory came to me, a memory of Adelina’s limo coming down, most likely this very same road. I knew what this was: tracking. We were good trackers, me and Bernie—he often said we could have done well as trackers in the old West, whatever that was.
The dirt road took us to the top of the hill, then rounded a huge rocky outcrop on the other side. A motorcycle was parked at the base of the outcrop, on a narrow shelf between the side of the road and a steep drop-off. Bernie slowed down and parked behind the motorcycle. Loved motorcycles, myself, had ridden with some bikers once, but that’s another story.
A woman in jeans and a T-shirt stepped from the shadows of the outcrop. She was big and strong, deeply tanned, had short dark hair with gray side wings: Nance, Princess’s trainer. She gave Bernie a hard look. “You said there was no danger.”
“I was wrong.”
“That’s pretty clear,” Nance said. “I don’t understand what you want, why you’re here.”
“We want to help.”
Nance looked at me for the first time. “You had your chance and blew it.”
“Tell you what,” Bernie said. “Let’s hold the recriminations for later.”
“Later?” Nance said.
“Meaning after we get them back safe,” Bernie said.
“Them?” said Nance.
“Adelina and Princess,” said Bernie. “Who else is missing?”
Nance’s look softened a little. “No one,” she said. “It’s just that not everyone would care about Princess, too.”
“Um,” said Bernie. Um: something Bernie said when he was feeling awkward. Sometimes, like now, he added, “Well, um.” He cleared his throat, gazed over the drop-off. “What we need first is your description of what happened, starting from when you left the strip.”
Nance licked her lips. I’m always on the lookout for that, not sure why. Human tongues, feeble little things for the most part, were interesting. Nance’s for example, had a pointy tip. Bernie’s was much rounder, more pleasing to my eye. “We left a few minutes after the . . .” She glanced at me. “. . . incident with your, uh—”
“Chet’s his name.”
“Incident with Chet,” Nance said. I wagged my tail. Hey! I was starting to like Nance. And the faint pot smell coming off her? So what? It’s everywhere, amigo. “We drove up here,” she was saying. “It’s the shortest route to the ranch at Rio Loco.”
“You, the driver, Adelina, and Princess?” Bernie said.
Nance nodded. “Adelina was in the back, Princess on her lap. I sat facing her, so I didn’t really see how it all began. We came over the rise, around the bend to right about here, and slowed down and stopped. Slowed down fast—I was pressed against the seat. I heard Rui honk the horn and I glanced toward the front and saw a car blocking the road. You know, parked sideways. By that time, Princess was barking—she hates the sound of the horn. I think Adelina said something like ‘Rui, what’s going on?’ but before he could answer, these men were all around, waving guns. Masked men—ski masks, I think—you couldn’t see their faces. They flung open the doors—it was all a blur by then—and one of them, this really big guy, just grabbed Adelina and started to yank her out. I reached for her, got hold of her ankle, I think it was, but then somebody hit me from behind and I fell on the floor, with the wind knocked out of me. Couldn’t move. A man shouted something about keys. Finally, I got up on my hands and knees, kind of crawled out of the limo. The pickup was already on the valley floor.” Nance pointed over the drop-off. Her hands were wide and strong; I couldn’t help wondering what kind of patter she’d be.
“Pickup?” Bernie said. “You said car before.”
“Which was it?”
Nance’s eyes, the color of her blue makeup, got an inward look. “I’m just not sure.”
“Perfectly understandable,” Bernie said. “And then?”
“I saw Rui—slumped over the wheel with a cut on the side of his head. I said, ‘Rui, Rui.’ He opened his eyes, got out, and puked all over the place.”
Puke: I caught that part. Hadn’t puked in a long time, myself— the last incident having to do with what turned out to be a wad of chewing tobacco over at Nixon Panero’s autobody. Puking itself was pretty interesting: you felt so bad before it happened and then right away after, you were good as new!
“. . . checked the ignition,” Nance was saying. “The keys were gone. I called 911.” She shrugged. “That’s about it.”
“How many attackers were there?” Bernie said.
“I’ve been trying and trying to remember. Everything happened so fast.” Bernie was watching Nance. The look in his eyes meant he was thinking something about her, but I had no idea what. Maybe she caught the look, too. “Sorry I can’t do any better,” she said.
“You did fine,” he said. “Better than that. How badly were you hurt?”
“Just a bruise or two.”
A bruise? Humans got bruises on their skin, always an interesting sight. Once or twice Bernie had even asked to see someone’s bruise, but not this time.
“Anything you can tell me about the car or pickup, whichever it was—the color, for example?”
Nance shook her head.
“Anything that would help identify the attackers?”
“They were masked, as I said.”
“But you might have caught a glimpse of skin color, or heard an accent.”
She shook her head again.
“Anything distinctive about their clothes?”
Nance closed her eyes. Humans often did that when they were concentrating extra hard; made no sense to me at all.
“Sorry,” she said. “Sorry I can’t be more help.”
“There’s a way you can.”
“We need a client.”
“I don’t understand,” Nance said.
“In order for me to talk to the police, to have standing in the case, we need a client, someone to hire us.”
“You’re asking me to hire you?” Nance said. “After . . . after . . .”
She glanced at me. “Why would I want to do that?”
“Because we’re good at this kind of case,” Bernie said. “Missing persons. You can check us out—it’s what we do.”
“Besides,” said Nance, “I don’t have that kind of money.”
“We’ll work for a nominal fee,” Bernie said.
Uh-oh. I knew nominal from experience: a big word meaning nothing.
“I couldn’t even do that,” Nance said. “Not without approval.”
“Whose?” said Bernie.
“Mr. Borghese’s,” Nance said.
“Can we call him?” Bernie said. “Right now? In cases like this, time is with the enemy.”
Nance’s eyes, glittering in the sun, went to me again. I’d been standing, but I sat down, couldn’t tell you why, and looked calm, steady, highly trained; reliable through and through. “I’ll take you to him,” she said. “He’s at the ranch.”
’d been to a ranch once before—a real working ranch, as Bernie said—on a family trip back in the Leda days. Bernie bought cowboy boots for everyone—Charlie, Leda, himself. No footwear for me, thanks, as I may have mentioned already. The fun we had, starting with the looks the old ranch hands gave Bernie when he came down to breakfast in his cowboy boots and his favorite Hawaiian shirt, the one with the orange flowers. But those looks all changed when the hands put on a shooting contest, Coke bottles on a fence rail, and asked Bernie, with these little smiles on their faces, if he’d like to try his luck. Blam blam—smithereens! No surprise to me, but later he turned out to be pretty good with the lasso, too. And Charlie—he’d loved the lasso. He’d tried to lasso me, just for fun, and I’d let him come close, on account of him being Charlie. But no one puts the lasso on me, for fun or not.
All I hadn’t liked about the ranch were the horses. What’s up with them? Totally unreliable, always twitching for no reason, but humans don’t seem to get that, go on and on about how beautiful they are until I just want to trot over toward one of those weird legs, the real skinny part, and give it the tiniest . . . but I would never do that, at least not again, after what happened that time at the ranch.
Why I’m going into this is because the first thing I saw as we drove up to the Borgheses’s ranch was a big white horse prancing in a corral with a white rail fence. Something about him made a bad impression on me right from the get-go. A ranch without horses—now that would be just about perf—
“Chet! Knock it off !”
Knock what off ? The barking? That was me? I opened my mouth real wide, let my tongue flop out, tried to look innocent. My lip got caught on one of my teeth; it took some time to straighten all that out.
We followed Nance on her bike. Hey, she could ride, leaning into the turns, revving the engine with a vroom vroom vroom that had me sitting straight up. Nance led us through a gate with a big sign above, stretching over the whole road. “ ‘Rio Loco Ranch, 1846,’ ” Bernie said. “They say Wild Bill Hickok stayed here.” Wild Bill Hickok? Sounded like a perp, although I didn’t remember him; but hard to remember them all—we’d cleared so many cases, me and Bernie.
Nance parked by some cars outside the corral, and we pulled in beside her. As we hopped out, the side door of the barn behind the corral opened up, and out walked Suzie, folding up her notebook. She saw us right away and hesitated. Hesitation—a human thing, and so interesting: it makes them quiver just the littlest bit. But as for what it’s all about, don’t ask me.
Suzie walked slowly toward us. “Hi, Bernie,” she said. “Hey, Chet.” Bernie nodded. He had a lot of nods. This one was of the wait-and-see kind. Suzie looked at Nance. “Are you Nancy Malone?” she said. “Princess’s trainer?”