Improvisation is the modus operandi when you work with Ernie Watson. "You doin' okay, kid?" he asks me, and all I can do is mumble back a reply — shag piling pressing up and into my mouth, my nostrils—as I'm momentarily assaulted by the stench of six thousand pairs of shoes and one incontinent household pet. "Stay down — I almost got the damn thing."
As an insistent burglar alarm whines away in the background, Ernie fumbles with the system's plastic keypad, doing his best to shut the contraption up, or at least send it to a better place. Ten seconds have passed, and in twenty more we're as good as bait for the neighborhood security patrol. Fortunately, they don't carry weapons. At least I think they don't carry weapons.
"The code," I say. "Put it in already."
"I did — "
"You didn't. It's still beeping."
"I did. And it's wrong. The code's wrong."
A leap to my feet — Bruno Maglis today, clearly the inappropriate attire when one is breaking and entering, but at eight a.m. this morning I expected a non-felonious workday — and I'm beside my partner in a beat, punching in the code over his protestations. Ernie's a crack PI, but it doesn't change the fact that his eyesight's slowly dropping off the low end of the scale — last time, he insisted to the ophthalmologist that the reading chart was mocking him, by God — and most likely he's simply hitting the wrong numbers.
There: 6-2-7-1-4-9-2. Just like it said in the Rolodex on the new hubby's desk. We found the code scrawled down as a phone number listed for a Mr. Alvin Alarming, and you can bet the farm it took the stellar mind of a T-Rex to come up with that brain-twister. I take my time and carefully depress the numbers on the keypad in their proper sequence.
The beeping continues. Twenty seconds down. This ain't good.
"Hey," I say, "the code's wrong."
Ernie fixes me with a cold, familiar stare. I grin. "Damn," Ernie mutters, "he musta changed it."
"Maybe she changed it — "
"No." Simple, monosyllabic. I don't argue.
Fifteen seconds. My gaze slides toward the doorway we came through, then out to the driveway and the suburban streets beyond. No security patrol so far, but that doesn't preclude an imminent arrival. The time has come to beat a hasty retreat, exit stage left, mission aborted. I was getting hungry, anyhow.
But before I can grab Ernie by the lapel of his blue bowling shirt and haul him out of the building and down to Pink's for a chili dog with extra onions, he's somehow managed to tear off the face of the keypad, exposing the simplistic guts of this seemingly complex security system. Wires spill out like loose spaghetti, electricity snapping through the open gaps, and Ernie shoots a queasy glance in my direction. "Get down, kid," he says. "And stay there."
No argument here. Over a decade of snoop work with the guy, I've learned that when Ernie gets that pained, cramped look — that I've-just-licked-a-human grimace — it's time to listen up and listen hard. I drop to the floor.
An array of stunted claws flash out from Ernie's suddenly exposed paw, latex human fingers flapping loosely off the wrist. A flick of the forearm, a sweep through the air, and those four sharp razors slice their way up and through the assortment of high-tech wizardry bolted to the wall. Sparks fly, showering Ernie in a wash of miniature fireworks, but he stands his ground and holds tough despite the burn marks spreading across the surface of his polysuit.
The alarm, if anything, grows louder.
Moving with some real urgency now, Ernie grasps a severed wire in each hand and twists the two exposed ends around each other into a single sparkling braid.
Light. Hissing. A small explosion, perhaps.
And silence. The distinct smell of sulfur hangs in the air. Wires and buttons and lights and computer chips lie in a small mountain of rubble on the foyer carpeting, and I have to stamp out the smoldering mess with the bottoms of my designer shoes in order to prevent a small fire. The things I do for this job . . .
But Ernie is triumphant, arms aloft, the latex fingers on his left hand clutching the exposed claws of his right, jumping up and down like the winning pugilist after an early-round knockout. There's glee in that little dance, in that smile spreading across his face. I know that smile. There's no getting past that smile. That's pure Ernie.
"Nice job," I say. "You gonna fix that before we go?"
Ernie shrugs. "Don't know how."
"So there goes the covert entry."
"Yep. There it goes."
"You got a kick outta that, didn't you?" I ask.
A short laugh, almost a choke, as Ernie turns his head, avoids making eye contact. "I sure as hell ain't sad, kid."
We move farther into the house.
Tight hallways and small, sectioned rooms are the norm in this wood-paneled home, a restored throwback to the cobblestone-wall and modular-furniture days of the late seventies. The rooms practically pulse with disco backbeat. A vaulted ceiling rises above the main living area, in which a Steinway grand piano lies dormant, a thin layer of dust having settled across the keys.
"She still play?" I ask.
"How the hell should I know?"
"I thought maybe you — "
Rows of framed photographs hang side by side in the main hallway, some of them old, most of them recent, all of them dinos in disguise. In the back of one group shot — a family reunion, I gather, from the striking clan resemblance — I believe I can make out a familiar guised face, a familiar squat body. No time to check, as Ernie's already through the hall and into a bedroom.
"What are we looking for?" I ask. Ernie's on his knees by the side of a California King Craftmatic adjustable bed, hurriedly rummaging through a battered oak nightstand. Books and old receipts fly onto the floor as my partner digs through the drawer with an intensity bordering on frenzy. This is not a careful archaeological expedition, to say the least.
No answer. I tap Ernie on the shoulder, and he barely flinches. "What are we — "
"I'll know it when I see it," he says.
I sit on the edge of the bed, and it nearly sinks to the floor under my meager weight. I don't even hear the creak of springs, as they must have given up the long, hard battle some time ago. This must be the side that the new husband sleeps on; T-Rexes, frame notwithstanding, are not known to be light snoozers.
Ernie has successfully transferred the entire contents of the nightstand's upper drawer to the floor, and as he starts in on the lower one with the same troubled deliberation, I realize I'm going to be in for a long evening. Once my partner gets his mind set on something, there's little short of a cannonball or a side of mutton that can stop him.
"I'll go stand guard," I offer.
"In case they come back."
"They're at the opera."
"Maybe they'll leave after the third quarter," I say, and Ernie waves a hand in my general direction. I take this as my cue to leave, destination already in mind. A squadron of little demons resting inside my belly are clamoring for their evening feast, scratching at the lining of my stomach with their pitchforks, and I can't deny the monsters for much longer. The kitchen, therefore, is the first stop.
Clean. Sparkling. And well appointed. I am a particular fan of the Sub-Zero fridge: easy to open, and, thanks to its excellent layout, easy to raid. Being careful not to disturb the other contents, I pluck a leftover leg of lamb from the bottom shelf, snag a bottle of hot mustard, and make my way to the kitchen table. The demons intensify their poking and prodding, and my stomach growls in protest.
A munch, maybe two, and then it's no more time for food as a pair of lights swing across the peach curtains that line the front windows of the house. Headlights, I'm sure of it, accompanied by the unmistakable purr of an import automobile.
"Ernie!" I call out, achieving new dino land speeds as I race down the hall. "We've got a problem — "
But he's engrossed in the same project as before, this time rummaging through an old bureau set against the far wall. In the few minutes since I'd left him, a miniature tornado must have localized itself in this bedroom: the floor is covered with knickknacks and loose sheets of paper, strewn about in every direction. "I think I'm onto it," Ernie says, oblivious of the F5-size mess he has created.
"Not anymore, you're not onto it," I tell him. "They're here."
"I know," he says wistfully. "I smelled her two minutes ago."
Even though the inhabitants of that car must have been ten blocks away two minutes ago, I have no cause to doubt Ernie's schnoz in cases such as this. Still, we have to vamoose. I grab Ernie by the shoulder, but he shrugs my hand away and continues digging.
I can hear two pairs of feet clomping up the front walkway, and now I, too, can smell them — one scent strong, musky, thick, and cloying, a bargain-basement cologne; the other is full of lilac and warm oatmeal.
And now the key is turning, opening the lock in the front door, and it won't be long before the rightful owners of this house walk into their foyer and step directly into a homeowner's nightmare represented by a pile of charred plastic and silicon that used to be their primary means of defense against intruders great and small.
"Ernie, we can't wait around — "
Front door creaking, opening, a matter of milliseconds —
" — for you to sniff this thing out, whatever it is — "
"Found it," says Ernie, his voice even, almost melancholy. I try to take a gander at the small, yellowed piece of paper in his hands, but he's already out the sliding glass door, leaving me to wade through the bedroom wreckage. I'm barely onto the patio when I hear the chorus of gasps and angry voices emanating from the foyer, but by then I'm at full tilt and rising fast. Past the pool, into the yard, over the fence in a single jump (with a little more effort than it used to take, I must admit), and hauling my carcass through the neighbor's backyard, Ernie a good ten yards ahead.
We're in my beloved Lincoln two minutes later, panting hard and catching our breath as we keep an eye out for anyone who may have seen or followed us. But the only movements in the shad- ows are your basic suburban staples — basketball nets swaying in the breeze, lawn flamingos falling off their rusted metallic legs, neighborhood cats prowling their turf, cruising for a good time — so it seems that for the moment, at least, we have escaped unnoticed.
The stomach succubi are displeased with my recent unexpected exercise, and are threatening to return the little lamb I was able to shove into my mouth to the land from whence it came. I swallow hard, trying to maintain some degree of professionalism. The last thing I need is to spend the rest of the evening cleaning up the Lincoln's front seat.
Ernie's engrossed in reading the sheet of paper he pilfered from the house, and after a time I ask him, "You wanna show me what you got?"
He folds the paper once, twice, then stuffs it into his front shirt pocket. "Let's get outta here."
"Best plan I heard all day." I turn the key and the good old American engine rumbles to life, breaking the stillness of the night. As I flick on the lights, Ernie reaches over and flicks them off again.
"I kinda need those."
"Go down her street," Ernie tells me.
I shake my head. "That ain't smart, Ern." I pointedly turn the lights back on again. "We got lucky once. We'd be asking for trouble — "
"Keep the lights off, no danger. C'mon, kid. For me."
I'd argue — really, I'd be more than happy to — but I can predict my own defeat ahead of time. So in order to save myself a few hours, I wall off the argumentative part of my brain behind some strong mental brickwork, flick off the lights, and drive down the street.
The front door is open, every light in the house in full-on blaze position. The exterior halogens have popped to life as well, and the home glows with nuclear intensity. I take my time coasting through the shadows, barely touching the accelerator.
Snippets of sound from inside—"the jewelry . . . did they get the . . . where are your rings . . . check the safe . . ."—accompanied by a side order of rancorous scents. The block is slowly filling with the smell of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but for dinos that aroma means fear and anger as opposed to Jack Frost nipping at your nose.
The lady of the house, perhaps sensing our presence, perhaps simply in need of a break from the difficulty of accepting a home invasion, steps out of her doorway and onto the front porch, staring off into the night. Does she see us? Possibly. Does she recognize us? Unlikely.
It's been some time since she's had her guise professionally aged — I can tell even from this distance that the wrinkle set usually required for the early fifties hasn't yet been sewn into her face — and as a whole, she looks similar to the last time I saw her, more than three years ago. Short blond hair puffed into a tight little ball against her head, a collection of mid-range jewelry adorning her small, thin wrists. Eyes covered in blue shadow, lips more pink than red, and the traces of good nature turning up the corners of her mouth even amid all this danger and disappoint- ment.
"She's still got that smell about her, don't she?" Ernie says, and his wistful tone pulls me into a similar reverie. A soft pat on my partner's back, and this time he doesn't move my hand away. We issue a collective sigh.
"A real sweetheart," I say.
"You don't gotta rub it in."
"Rub what in?" I ask. "You said she had a great smell, I said she was a sweetheart. Am I wrong?"
Ernie scratches his chin, massaging the stubble he so carefully applies once a week. He'd thought about getting that facial hair kit from Nanjutsu, the one in which the hairs actually grow through the skin at a predetermined rate, but decided that the beard replacement packs (at least one every two weeks) weren't worth the cost. "No, you ain't wrong, kid," he says. "She's a sweetheart all right."
In a single move, Ernie reaches into his pocket, extracts the slip of paper he took from the house, and tosses it into my lap. I open it slowly, the old, worn pages crackling beneath my fin- gers, and hold it beneath the small light from the LED clock display.
A marriage license. Louise and Ernie's marriage license, to be specific, and I fold it up as reverently as possible and hand it back to my partner, who is still unable to take his eyes off his ex-wife standing in the doorway of what used to be their house.
There's a moment when I think she's looking right at us, a moment when I think her eyes and Ernie's eyes make some connection, when I think I can hear her saying It's okay, I understand, but then she turns, walks back inside, and closes the door. The front lights are extinguished moments later.
"Drive on home, kid," Ernie says to me. "Don't stop for gas."