I smell trouble,” Bernie said.
Better stop right there. Not that I doubt Bernie. The truth is, I believe everything he says. And he has a nice big nose for a human. But what’s that saying? Not much.
It’s a fact that trouble has a smell—human trouble especially, sour and penetrating—but Bernie had never smelled trouble before, or if so he hadn’t mentioned it, and Bernie mentioned all kinds of things to me. We’re partners in the Little Detective Agency, me and Bernie, Bernie’s last name being Little. I’m Chet, pure and simple.
I took a quick sniff, smelled no trouble whatsoever, just as I’d expected, but did smell lots of other stuff, including burgers cooking on a grill. I looked around: no grill in sight, and this wasn’t the time to go searching, although all at once I was a bit hungry, maybe even more than a bit. We were on the job, trailing some woman whose name I’d forgotten. She’d led us out of the Valley to a motel in a flea-bitten desert town. That was what Bernie called it—flea-bitten—but I felt no fleas at all, hadn’t been bothered by them in ages, not since I started on the drops. But the funny thing was, even though I didn’t have fleas, just the thought of them suddenly made me itchy. I started scratching, first behind my ear, soon along my side, then both at once, really digging in with my claws, faster and—
“Chet, for God’s sake.”
I went still, one of my back paws frozen in midair. Bernie gave me a close look. “Don’t tell me I forgot the drops?” I gave him a close look right back. Bernie has these faint lines on his forehead. When he worries, they get deeper, like now. I don’t like it when Bernie worries. I pushed all thoughts about scratching clear out of my mind and sat straight up in the shotgun seat—my very favorite spot—alert and flealess.
We were in the Porsche. There are fancy Porsches out there—we see them on the freeways; we’ve got freeways out the yingyang in the Valley—but ours isn’t one of them. It’s very old, brown with yellow doors, and there’s a bullet hole in the back license plate. How that happened is a story for another time.
There was one palm tree on the street in front of the motel, a small one with dusty leaves, and we were parked behind it. That was part of our stakeout technique, hiding behind trees. Maybe it was our whole technique: I couldn’t think of any other parts at the moment. Beyond the palm tree stood the motel, horseshoe-shaped—just one of the many strange things about horses, that they wore shoes—with parking in between. Two cars in the lot, parked far from each other. One, a red convertible, belonged to the woman we were tailing. The other, a dark sedan, had been there when we arrived.
We gazed at the motel door closest to the red convertible. The woman—short, blond, curvy—had jumped out of the car and gone straight inside. Since then—nothing. That was one of the problems with divorce work: no action. We hated divorce work, me and Bernie—our specialty was missing persons—but with the state of our finances we couldn’t turn down anything. How our finances got this way is a long story, hard to keep straight in my head. Early on, there’d been the Hawaiian pants. Bernie loves Hawaiian shirts—right now he was wearing the one with the trumpet pattern—and he got the idea that people would snap up Hawaiian pants. In the end, they got snapped up by us. We’ve got a closet full of them, plus lots more at our self-storage in Pedroia. Later on came the tin futures. The tin futures looked good after some find in Bolivia, but then an earthquake buried everything, so here we were, back on the divorce beat.
Our client was a sad-eyed little guy named Marvin Winkleman who owned a ticket agency downtown. Don’t ask me what a ticket agency is. What’s important is that he thought his wife was cheating, and coughed up the $500 retainer. Don’t ask me about the cheating part, either. It’s a human thing; we operate differently in my world. “Just find out, one way or another,” Winkleman said. “I’ve got to know.”
Later, driving away, Bernie said, “Why do they always have to know? What’s wrong with ignorance is bliss?” I had no idea.
We sat. Nothing happened. The dusty palm leaves hung motionless. Bernie got fidgety. He opened the glove box, checked behind the visor, patted his pockets. Poor Bernie. He never bought cigarettes anymore, was trying to quit. After a while he gave up, sat back, folded his arms. Bernie has nice strong arms. I kept my eyes on them. Time passed. Then I heard a faint metallic sound and looked out. The motel door opened and out came the blond woman, patting her hair. I glanced at Bernie. Hey! His eyes were closed. I barked, not a loud bark but the soft kind I swallow in my throat. Bernie’s eyelids flew open. He put his hand on me, sat up straight, reached for the camera, and took her picture.
The blond woman got in the convertible and checked herself in the mirror. Bernie took another picture. She put on lipstick, gave her mouth a nice stretch. I gave my mouth a nice stretch, too, for no reason. “Looks pretty happy, doesn’t she?” Bernie said. She backed out of her space, drove out of the lot and down the street, away from us. Bernie took pictures of the motel, the blinking sign outside, the palm tree, and me. Then we went back to watching the motel room door. “Maybe there’s no one in there,” Bernie said. “Like she just enjoys a solitary little nap out in the desert now and then, making this a wild goose chase.”
Wild goose chase? I’d heard that one before, wanted to go on a wild goose chase very badly, but there were no geese in sight. Once—was this back when the Hawaiian pants returns started coming in?—I’d heard Bernie say, “Our goose is cooked.” But no cooked goose ever appeared. Meanwhile, I was hungry. The smell of burgers on the grill, while not as strong as—
The motel door opened. A man stepped out, a tall man in a white shirt and dark pants, knotting his tie. “Bingo,” said Bernie, I’m not sure why. I knew bingo—a game they played at the Police Athletic League fund-raiser, an event I’d been to only once and probably wouldn’t be back to, what with how exciting it turned out to be, and that unfortunate incident with my tail and all those little plastic chips on the chief’s card—but was this a time for games? Bernie aimed the camera at the man, gazed into it, and said, “Oh my God.” He slowly lowered the camera.
The man glanced around in a quick way that reminded me of lots of perps we’d taken down and walked to the dark sedan at the other end of the motel parking lot.
“Recognize him, Chet?” said Bernie in a low voice.
I wasn’t sure. Nothing wrong with my eyes—although Bernie says I can’t be trusted when it comes to color, so don’t put any money on the convertible being red—but they’re really more of a backup to my nose and my ears, and the man was too far away for me to get a whiff, plus he wasn’t saying anything. Still, he moved in a way that was kind of familiar, stiff and long-legged, like one of those birds that can’t fly, their name escaping me at the moment. The man unlocked the sedan. “Those software geeks,” Bernie said. “I should have known from the flip-flops. It’s Malcolm.”
Malcolm? This divorce case dude was someone we knew already? I checked those feet: long skinny feet with long skinny toes. I remembered the smell of those feet, somewhat like a big round piece of cheese Bernie had once left outside for a day or two. Yes, Malcolm for sure. I didn’t like Malcolm, even though I like just about every human I’ve ever met, even some of the perps and gangbangers. Malcolm didn’t like me, either; he was one of those humans who got nervous around my kind.
Malcolm climbed into his car and drove away. “What the hell are we going to do?” Bernie said. Huh? Weren’t we going to do what we always did when a divorce case worked out like this, which was deliver the evidence, collect the final check, grab a bite somewhere? “Specifically, what are we going to do about Leda?”
Leda? What did . . .? But then I began to see, sort of. Bernie was divorced himself. He has a kid, Charlie, who we only get to see some weekends and holidays. Charlie mainly lives in a big house in High Chaparral Estates, one of the nicest developments in the whole Valley, with Bernie’s ex-wife, Leda, and her boyfriend. The boyfriend was Malcolm. What else do you need to know? Maybe just that Bernie misses Charlie a lot—and so do I—but he never misses Leda—and neither do I. And then there’s Suzie Sanchez, a reporter for the Valley Tribune and sort of Bernie’s girlfriend. Suzie smells great—kind of like soap and lemons—and has a full box of treats in her car at all times. She’s a gem.
Bernie felt under the seat, found a mangled cigarette, lit up. He took a deep breath, blew out a big smoke cloud. I love the smell, would smoke if I could. His whole body relaxed; I could feel it. I could also feel him thinking, a nice feeling, like breezes brushing by. I waited, my own mind empty and peaceful.
“We could tell her,” he said after a while. “Or not tell her.”
He smoked some more.
“If we tell her, what happens? Something, for sure. If we don’t tell her, maybe nothing happens. Nothing is often the best policy.” Bernie’s hand reached out in that absentminded way it does sometimes and gave me a pat. Bernie’s a great patter, the very best. “Still, it’s a time bomb, ticking away. But do all time bombs go off?” Bombs? Bombs were somehow in the picture? Wasn’t this divorce work? I knew bombs, of course, could sniff them out, something I’d learned in K-9 school. I’d done pretty well in K-9 school, up until the very last day. The only thing left had been the leaping test. And leaping is just about my very best thing. Then came some confusion. Was a cat involved? And blood? I ended up flunking out, but that was how Bernie and I got together, so it worked out great. But forget all that. The point is I can smell bombs, and there was no bomb smell in the air outside the motel. Detective work could be confusing. You had to be patient. “Got to be patient, big guy.” Bernie said that a lot. It meant just sitting, not always so easy.
Bernie took one last drag, then got out of the car and ground the butt into the dirt. He had a thing about forest fires, although there were no forests around out here in the desert, just this palm tree, a few shrubs, rocks, dirt. Bernie turned to me. “Is ignorance bliss? Hits a little closer to home now, doesn’t it, Chet?”
Didn’t quite get that. Were we going home? Fine with me, but shouldn’t we swing by the client first, pick up the check? Otherwise why bother with divorce work?
Bernie got back in the car, started to turn the key, then went still. “And what’s best for Charlie?” he said.
We left the desert, rode up and over the mountain pass where the air is always so fresh—I had my head stuck way out—and back into the Valley. The Valley is huge, goes on forever in all directions. The air got less fresh and started shimmering, the sky turning from blue to hazy orange. Bernie’s hands tightened on the wheel. “Imagine what this looked like when Kit Carson rode through,” he said. Kit Carson comes up from time to time. I couldn’t remember what he’d done, but if it was bad we’d bring him down eventually. Message to Kit Carson: an orange jumpsuit is in your future.
The downtown towers appeared, just the tops of them, the rest lost in the haze. Soon we were down in the haze ourselves. We parked in front of one of the towers and went into a coffee shop on the ground floor. No one there except Marvin Winkleman, sitting at a front table and gazing into his coffee cup, head down. Hey! He was one of those comb-over dudes. Love comb-overs! Humans can be very entertaining, no offense.
Winkleman looked up. “You’ve got news?” Human sweat is a big subject, but for now, let’s just say the nervous kind has a special tang that travels a long way, very easy to sniff out, and I was sniffing it out now.
Bernie nodded and took a seat at the table. I sat on the floor beside him.
“Good news or bad?” said Winkleman.
Bernie put the laptop on the table, turned it so Winkleman could see, and plugged in the camera. “These are in sequence,” he said, “time stamped at the bottom left.”
Winkleman looked at the pictures, his face gray in the laptop’s light. His sad eyes got sadder. “Who is he?” he said.
Bernie was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Does it really matter?”
Winkleman thought. His thoughts weren’t like soft breezes, were more like dark shadows that I didn’t want near me. “Guess not,” he said. “What’s the point?” He put his head in his hands. This happens sometimes, maybe like the human head can get to be too much to support.
“Um,” said Bernie. When he feels uncomfortable he bites his lip; he was doing it now. “Do, uh, you have any kids?”
“We were waiting for the right time.” Or something like that: kind of hard to hear, with Winkleman’s hands covering his face.
“Well,” said Bernie. “Then, uh . . .”
Winkleman uncovered his face. A tear rolled out of one eye. Waterworks: I was always on the lookout for that. Human tears taste salty. I know from this one time Charlie cried after he fell off his bike, and I licked his face. I had no desire to lick Winkleman’s face. “You’re telling me things could be worse?” he said.
“Maybe a cliché,” Bernie said. “Not very helpful, in retrospect.”
Winkleman wiped away the tear. “Sorry,” he said. “Crazy to take it out on the messenger.” He opened his checkbook. “How much do I owe you?”
Bernie checked his watch. “Today doesn’t count as a full day.” Oh, Bernie. “Let’s call it eight hundred.”
Winkleman handed over the check. “Got any kids yourself?” he said.
Winkleman reached into his pocket, produced a big wad of tickets, gave Bernie two. “Here,” he said. New tears welled up in his eyes, trembled at the edge of the lower lids. “Kids like the circus.”
Bernie rose. At that moment I noticed a little something on the floor. I couldn’t think of the name of that little something for the longest time, not until after I’d snapped it up and swallowed it down. Croissant: that was it. Not the sausage-and-egg kind, which I’d had once behind a Dumpster at the North Valley Mall, but still: delish, and I’d been hungry since the stakeout. Could have downed another croissant, in fact, and maybe even another after that.
“Chet? You coming?”
We headed for the door. Just as we went out, I glanced back and saw Winkleman standing by a trash receptacle. He took the gold ring off his finger and dropped it inside. Bernie had a gold ring that looked just the same. He kept it in a drawer in the office. I came very close to having a big thought, but it didn’t quite come.
The phone buzzed just as Bernie started up the car. Bernie had the phone rigged so the voice came through the speakers. “Bernie? Amy here.” I knew Amy. She was the vet. A nice woman, big and round, with soft hands, but I never liked going to the vet. “I’ve got the lab report on that lump.” Bernie leaned forward.
© 2010 SPENCER QUINN