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Paw and Order
We blasted out of bayou country, Bernie behind the wheel, me in the shotgun seat. Our ride’s a real old Porsche, the oldest we’ve had in our whole career. The last one got blown up; the one before that went off a cliff. And who can remember the one before that? Not me, amigo, except for how loud train whistles turn out to be from up real close. The point is, old Porsches are how we roll at the Little Detective Agency, just one of the things that makes us so successful, leaving out the finances part, where we’ve run into some hiccups I won’t go into now. And don’t get me started on hiccups, which is the annoying thing about them, namely that you can’t stop. What else do you need to know? Bernie’s last name is Little, which is how come we’re the Little Detective Agency. I’m Chet, pure and simple.
We came to a crossroads with a roadhouse on one corner. Bernie slowed down and read the sign: “Ti-Pierre’s Cajun BBQ.” No surprise there: for some time now, barbecue had been in the air, impossible to miss. Bernie tilted up his face—no need to describe his face, the best human face in the world—and took a sniff. “I can almost smell it,” he said. Yes, the best human face, not at all like those tiny-nosed human faces you see so often. Bernie had a nose that looked capable of doing big things. So why didn’t it? I turned to him, gave that nose a good long look. He gave me a good long look back.
“What’s on your mind, big guy?” he said. Then he smiled. “I got it—you’re up for one last taste of the local grub before we head for home.”
No! That wasn’t it at all! Bernie laughed and gave me a nice pat, scratched the spot between my ears where I can’t get to. And just like that, one last taste of the local grub was all alone in my mind, whatever had been there before completely gone. I couldn’t have been happier, which is how I like to operate.
We pulled into the parking lot at Ti-Pierre’s Cajun BBQ. I was just noticing all the bikes in the lot, the big kind that bikers like, when the phone buzzed. Bernie hit speaker.
“Bernie? You called?” Hey! It was Suzie. Hadn’t heard her voice in way too long, although it usually sounded warmer than this. Suzie had been Bernie’s girlfriend, back when she’d worked for the Valley Tribune, the Valley being where we lived—maybe in Arizona, a detail I’d picked up quite recently—but then she’d gone away to take a job with the Washington Post, a no-brainer Bernie said.
“I, um, ah,” Bernie said. “Sorry.”
“You’re saying you’re sorry?”
“For what didn’t happen,” Bernie said. For what didn’t happen? This was hard to follow. My mind wandered to a morning not long ago when Suzie had arrived suddenly at the houseboat where Bernie and I had stayed while working the Ralph Boutette case and found Vannah on board. Vannah: a story for another time, but I should probably mention that tiny bikini and how the straps kept slipping no matter what she did. My mind wandered on to something else, namely barbecue, and when it came back, Bernie was saying, “. . . crazy to let silly misunderstandings come between us.”
“How about serious misunderstandings?” Suzie said, her voice still pretty cold.
“Them, too,” Bernie said.
There was a pause, and then Suzie laughed. Soon they were both laughing. I like watching humans laugh when they’re on the phone, especially when they laugh their heads off and somehow keep the phone in place the whole time. As for what this conversation was about, you tell me. It went on for some time, and then I put my paw on Bernie’s knee, just reminding him about what we were here for, namely barbecue.
Bernie glanced at me. “I’ve got a feeling Chet’s hungry,” he said.
“That’ll be with a capital H,” Suzie said, losing me completely. But maybe not Bernie. He laughed again. What fun we were all having! I pressed a little harder with my paw.
“So,” Bernie said.
“So,” said Suzie. After that came a long pause. Then she went on. “What’s next?”
“Headed home,” Bernie said.
“Happy trails,” said Suzie.
• • •
We hopped out of the Porsche—me actually hopping, Bernie using the door—and walked toward Ti-Pierre’s Cajun BBQ. They had a deck on one side, so that was where we headed, restaurant decks usually being pretty welcoming to me and my kind. We took the last empty table—all the others occupied by biker guys and gals—and Bernie ordered: beer for him, water for me, ribs and brisket to share. A biker at the next table leaned toward us.
“That your Porsche out there?”
Bernie nodded. I’d been about to lie down in the shade under the table; instead I sat up nice and straight.
The biker leaned a little closer, one of those dudes with a neck thicker than his head, not a look that shows humans at their best, in my opinion. “Piece of crap,” he said. He had the most interesting breath I’d smelled in a long time, a rich mix of onions, garlic, pulled pork, whiskey, pot, cocaine, rotten teeth, and strawberry ice cream.
“This is America,” Bernie said. “You’re welcome to your opinion.”
The biker dude turned to the biker gal beside him. Hey! She had the same kind of neck, thicker than her head. Had I ever seen that on a woman before? I was trying to remember when the biker dude spoke in a high little voice. “You’re welcome to your opinion.” The biker gal thought that was funny. So did a bunch of the other bikers, all of them now looking our way. “My point exactly, pretty boy,” the biker said, now back to his normal voice, rough and loud. “This. Is. America.”
Pretty boy? Was he agreeing with me that Bernie had the best face in the world? I went back and forth on that. Meanwhile, the biker dude was saying, “Your piece of crap ride ain’t American. Makin’ you a traitor, as well as a sexual deviator.”
It got very quiet out on the deck at Ti-Pierre’s Cajun BBQ, so when Bernie spoke every word was clear. “You’re embarrassing yourself,” he said.
It got even quieter. I heard the sounds of chairs being pushed back a bit and feet getting gathered underneath dudes, dudes maybe planning to rise in a hurry.
The thick-necked biker’s face was real red now and his nostrils had opened up a surprising amount, reminding me of a bull I came across once in a corral I’d regretted entering almost immediately. “Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll give you a choice. I can either beat the shit outta you here and now—”
“Yeah, do that, Ferdie,” called someone from another table.
“—or you can put those airy-fairy wheels of yours up against me and my Harley, say from here to the Pont Greve Bridge and back.” He took out a fat wad, counted out some bills, and slapped them on our table. “A thousand bucks says you lose.”
Another biker dropped in more money. “Make that two grand.”
And one more biker. “Three.”
Meaning there was a serious pile of money on the table, how much exactly I’ll leave to you, since I don’t go past two. I had the feeling that we hadn’t walked away with a whole lot of green on the Ralph Boutette case, although the details wouldn’t come. Something about emergency car repairs? Maybe. But none of that mattered now. All that mattered was us latching on to that pile of money.
Bernie leaned back in his chair, looking real relaxed, unlike everyone else on the deck. But that was Bernie! “I’m mighty tempted, Ferdie,” he said. “But you’re too drunk to drive.”
There’s a kind of silent excitement that can spread quickly through a group of humans. It’s got some sweat in it, the sour kind, plus a funky part, male and female. I smelled it now, and the fur on the back of my neck rose up. Ferdie got to his feet, and I smelled one more thing: he had a gun in his pocket, recently fired.
Ferdie—even huger than I’d thought, now that I saw him upright—gazed down at Bernie like he hated him, which made no sense since they’d hardly even met. “Willing to bet I’m too drunk to beat you to a pulp?” he said.
Bernie got a distant look in his eyes, the way he does when he’s doing his deepest thinking.
“Yellow, huh?” said Ferdie, which I didn’t get at all, Bernie’s skin being tanned and a bit reddish if anything.
“It’s more the syntax,” he said.
“A little tricky, took me a moment,” Bernie said. “But sure, I’m on. Although why don’t I just take the money and spare you the pain?”
Ferdie roared. More bull than man, but the sound didn’t scare me. I’d seen enough fighting—and done plenty myself—to know that when it came to humans, the silent ones are the most dangerous. Did Ferdie flip the table right onto Bernie and come swarming in, throwing heavy roundhouses with his huge arms? Possibly, but I was on my own feet now and facing away from the action, setting up a friendly little boundary, just making it easier for everybody. From behind I heard a thump thump, and maybe one more thump, Ferdie still pounding away, and then came a brief pause followed by a snap that reminded me of wishbones on Thanksgiving—my favorite holiday, but no time to go into that now—only much louder, and right after that there was a horrible cry of . . . how to put it? Agony? Not Bernie’s of course, but it really did scare me just the same.
I turned. Bernie was on his feet—the money already tucked into the pocket of his Hawaiian shirt—setting the table back up in the proper way. Ferdie lay on the floor kind of . . . how to put it? Writhing? That was as close as I could get. His arm was at an angle you never see. Just the sight of it made a big bearded biker a few tables back puke all over a paper plate stacked with cornbread. I came close to losing my appetite, and in that moment of not concentrating on my job, almost missed Ferdie’s biker gal—the one with the thick neck, even thicker than his, I now saw: what a time we were having!—whipping a little pink-handled gun out from under her bra. Luckily for me—and I’ve had so much luck in my life, starting with flunking out of K-9 school on the very last day, which was how I met Bernie—I can go from just standing around to flying through the air in no time flat, always the best time there is. The next thing I knew I had that little pink popgun in my mouth and the thick-necked biker gal was holding her wrist and calling me names I’m sure she didn’t mean.
“Nice work, big guy,” Bernie said, taking the gun. A breeze sprang up behind me and after hardly another moment went by, I realized it was my own tail in action. Was I cooking or what?
Bernie held up the gun in a delicate kind of way between his finger and thumb. “Any objection to me confiscating this? Wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt.”
Judging from the looks on their faces, that didn’t go over too well with the bikers. They seemed to be closing in, a dude with one of those teardrop tattoos, like he was always feeling sad, drawing a throwing knife from behind his back.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Bernie said, his eyes on no one in particular. “I’m making a big fuss about nothing. No way such a pipsqueaky thing could be accurate. You’re probably right, but . . .” Bernie’s grip on the gun changed a bit: still kind of loose but now his finger was on the trigger. Crack went the gun, but in a very small way. Then came a clang, and the throwing knife got knocked right out of the teardrop dude’s hand and fell to the floor. “Gracious me,” Bernie said. He stared at the pink-handled gun like he was amazed, then dropped it into his pocket.
Things settled down after that. In fact, it turned out the bikers all had somewhere else to be. By the time the waiter appeared with our order, we had the deck to ourselves.
“Where the hell did everybody go?” the waiter said.
“No one takes time to smell the roses anymore,” Bernie told him.
Roses? None around that I knew of, and you can trust me on that kind of thing. But the smell of Ti-Pierre’s Cajun BBQ was overpowering. The waiter laid a paper plate of brisket at my feet, and I have no memories from that moment until Bernie and I were back in the car.
He opened the glove box, popped the little pink-handled gun inside, which was where we normally kept the .38 Special, now on the bottom of the sea for reasons I won’t go into. Bernie cranked us up, drove out of the lot and into the crossroads, started to turn, and then stopped. He took his hands off the wheel. There was no traffic, but stopping in the middle of the road? Not our usual MO.
Bernie looked my way. “Left is west, Chet. West and home. We’re westerners, you and me.” I was just finding that out now? It sounded important. “But there’s a tide in the affairs of men.” This was getting complicated. I started to pant a bit. Bernie’s hands settled on the wheel. “And east is Suzie.”