One thing’s for sure,” the lawyer said, handing Bernie our check, “you earned every cent.”
Bernie tucked the check in—oh, no—the chest pocket of his Hawaiian shirt, just about his nicest Hawaiian shirt, with the hula dancers and the trombones, but that wasn’t the point. The point was we’d had chest pocket problems in the past, more than once. And possibly more than twice, but I wouldn’t know, since I don’t count past two. What I do know is that checks have a way of falling out of chest pockets.
“What’s he barking about?” the lawyer said.
Bernie glanced at me. “Just wants to get rolling,” he said. That wasn’t it at all: what I wanted was for Bernie to put that check in his front pants pocket where it would be safe. But then I realized that I did kind of want to get rolling. Wow! That was Bernie, knowing my own mind better than I did. And I knew his exactly the same way! Which is just one of the reasons why the Little Detective Agency is so successful, especially if you forget about the finances part. We’re partners. He’s Bernie Little. I’m Chet, pure and simple.
“You did a nice job, Bernie,” the lawyer said. “Those motel pics? Perfecto. Might have another case for you in a couple of weeks.”
“More divorce work?” Bernie said.
“That’s my beat.”
Bernie sighed. We hated divorce work, me and Bernie. None of the humans involved were ever at their best, or even close. Get me to tell you sometime about the Teitelbaum divorce and what Mrs. Teitelbaum did at the end, a nightmare except for the fact of that being the night I got my first taste of kosher chicken. There’s good in everything.
The lawyer had one of those human mouths where the corners turned down. You see that a lot, but not on Bernie: his mouth corners turn up. Now the lawyer’s mouth corners turned down some more.
“Aren’t you divorced yourself????” he said.
“So?” said Bernie. He has a way of saying “so” that makes him seem a little bigger, and Bernie’s a pretty big guy to begin with.
“Nothing,” the lawyer said. “Nothing at all. Just sayin’.”
Bernie gave him a long look. Then he reached for the check and jammed it into one of his front pants pockets. Life is full of surprises, sometimes not so easy to understand. I put this one behind me as fast as I could, my mind shutting down in a very pleasant way.
We hopped into our ride, a real old Porsche painted different shades of red, but Bernie says I’m not good with red, so don’t take my word for it.
“That left a bad taste in my mouth,” Bernie said. “How about a little spin?”
What was this? Bernie had a bad taste in his mouth? I felt sorry for him. At the same time, I let my tongue roam around my own mouth, and what do you know? Up in the roof part, hidden away in one of those hard ridges? Yes! A Cheeto! Not a whole Cheeto, but pretty close. I nudged it loose with the tip of my tongue and made quick work of it. Riding shotgun in the Porsche, Cheetos practically falling from the sky: we were cooking.
Bernie stepped on the pedal, and we roared out of the strip mall lot where the lawyer had his office, the tires shrieking on the hot pavement. Roaring and shrieking: the Porsche had a voice of its own, a voice I loved. We zipped past a lot of strip malls—we’ve got strip malls out the yingyang here in the Valley—and hit the freeway. Freeways we’ve also got out the yingyang, all of them packed day and night; this one took us past the downtown towers—their tops lost in the brownish sky we sometimes get in monsoon season, a season with a strange damp smell all its own, although there hadn’t been a drop of rain yet, not in ages—across the big arroyo and up into the hills, traffic thinning at last. Bernie let out a deep breath.
“Think there’s anything to that?” he said. “Me hating divorce work on account of my own divorce? Some kind of—what would you call it? Hidden psychological connection?”
What was Bernie talking about? I had no clue. I put my paw on his knee, for no particular reason. The car shot forward.
“Hey, Chet! What the hell?”
Oops. Had I pressed down a bit too hard? I laid off.
“It’s all right, big guy. Sometimes you don’t know your own strength.”
Whoa! Don’t know my own strength? Had to be one of Bernie’s jokes. He can be a funny guy with jokes—take that time he found some pink streamers and stuck them on the handle grips of a bunch of bikes parked outside a biker bar and then waited for the bikers to come out. And that was just the beginning of the fun! But take it from me: I know my own strength.
We topped a rise and cruised over a long flat stretch, the highway shimmering blue in the distance like it was covered in water. Not true, as I’d learned many times and now was learning again.
Yes, all of a sudden. How did he know? Bernie slowed down, dug my bowl out from under the seat, filled it from a water bottle, and set it on the floor in front of me, all of that with one hand on the wheel and sometimes not any. Bernie was the best driver in the Valley. That day he went off the cliff—in the Porsche before this one, or maybe before that one, too—it wasn’t his fault at all. Once he’d even been offered the job of wheelman for the Luddinsky Gang. We’d busted them instead. The look on their faces!
I stopped panting, leaned down, and lapped up the water.
“Better?” Bernie said.
Totally. I sat up straight. We rounded a curve and spotted some dudes in orange jumpsuits picking up trash by the roadside, a sheriff’s van idling behind them, yellow light flashing. Bernie eased off the gas. We’d put a lot of perps into orange jumpsuits, and you never knew when you’d bump into an old pal.
“Hey,” Bernie said. “Isn’t that Frenchie Boutette?”
The little roly-poly dude at the end, poking at a scrap of paper, missing, taking a short break? He glanced our way, recognized the car, easy to tell from how his eyebrows shot up. Yes, Frenchie for sure. We pulled over.
“Frenchie! How’s it going?”
Frenchie looked at Bernie, then at me, and backed away.
“Don’t be shy,” Bernie said. “We’re not going to bite you.”
“Think I’m fallin’ for that line again?” Frenchie said. “Slipped your mind how Chet bit me that last time, down in Arroyo Seco?”
“Come on, Frenchie. How can you call that a bite?”
“Because of all the blood,” Frenchie said.
“Barely a scratch,” Bernie said. “Booze thins the blood. And why did you try to run away in the first place?”
“Because I didn’t want to do time. Why else? Like maybe I was training for the Olympics?”
Bernie laughed. “Haven’t lost your sense of humor.”
A sheriff’s deputy came over, shotgun pointed down, although not completely down. Weapons are something I keep a close eye on.
“What’s goin’ on here?” he said.
“I was just saying that Frenchie hasn’t lost his sense of humor.”
“Bernie?” the deputy said.
“Hey, Waldo,” said Bernie. “How’s it going?”
“Hundred and seven in the shade and I’m out here with the scum of the earth—how do you think it’s going?” Deputy Waldo said, the shotgun now pointed directly at the ground, just the way I like. “This Chet?”
“Heard about him.” Deputy Waldo gave me a close look. Right away, just from a change in his eyes—tiny eyes and pretty cold until this moment—I could tell he liked me and my kind. “A pretty big dude,” Waldo went on. “What’s he weigh?”
“Getting him on the scale’s not easy,” Bernie said.
I remembered that game! Bernie tried to pick me up, maybe with some idea of standing with me on the scale. Lots of fun, but no one picks me up, amigo.
“A hundred plus,” Bernie was saying. “And he’s strong for his size.”
“You got him from the K-9 program?”
“He flunked out—was what went down?” Waldo said. “Hard to believe.”
“A long story,” Bernie said.
And not one I wanted to dwell on at that moment. Flunked out on the very last day, with only the leaping test left, and leaping was my very best thing. The good part was I actually couldn’t dwell on it for long, on account of the details growing hazier in my mind every day. I was pretty sure a cat was involved, and maybe some blood—but I might have been getting it all mixed up with Frenchie’s blood. I’d never meant to do Frenchie any harm, just grab him by the pant leg, which was how we usually ended cases at the Little Detective Agency, but Frenchie had strangely chubby calves, and all of a sudden I’d found myself . . . best not to go there. Sometimes things happen before you even know it—let’s leave it at that.
Meanwhile, Deputy Waldo was saying, “Is he allowed any treats?” He handed Bernie the shotgun, fished through his pockets. Allowed? That was a new one on me. “Don’t have any dog treats as such,” Waldo said. “But here’s a Slim Jim, kind of a weakness of mine.”
Not a whole Slim Jim—one end completely chewed off—but one thing was clear: Deputy Waldo and I were peas in a pod, although peas, in or out of the pod—and I had experience with both kinds—didn’t do it for me at all. Also I was kind of confused on the weakness part. The very next moment, I was fully occupied, and none of that—peas, pods, weaknesses—mattered the least little bit.
When I tuned back in, Frenchie was talking to Waldo. “Wouldn’t have another one of those hangin’ around by any chance?”
Waldo took the shotgun back from Bernie. “You askin’ me for a Slim Jim?”
“Why would I give you a Slim Jim? You’re the laziest son of a bitch on the whole goddamn crew.” Waldo turned to Bernie. “Was he always a lazy son of a bitch, or is this just a special treat for me?”
My ears perked up at that. More treats? And how could Frenchie be the one to hand them out? There were no pockets in his orange jumpsuit, and he gave off not a whiff of treat, his scent being mostly a not unpleasant mixture of dried sweat, dandruff, and soft butter. Uh-oh, and something else, not good, a dried-up mushroomy smell that our neighbor, old Mrs. Parsons—now in the hospital—gave off, too, somewhat stronger in her case. Did Frenchie have what Mrs. Parsons had?
“His talents lie in other directions,” Bernie said.
“Talent? He’s got talent?”
“Frenchie has a head on his shoulders.”
When they get praised, some humans gaze at the ground and do a foot-shuffling thing. Frenchie did it now.
“Puttin’ me on, Bernie?” Waldo said.
Bernie shook his head. “Frenchie came up with this scheme for conning disabled Vietnam vets out of their benefits. One of them was a friend of ours, which was how we got to know Frenchie in the first place.”
“He’s not in for armed robbery?” Waldo said. “That’s what he tells everybody.”
“Armed robbery?” Bernie said. “Frenchie Boutette?”
Waldo turned to Frenchie, the shotgun barrel rising slightly, unsteady in the motionless air. “Conning disabled vets? That’s despicable.”
Frenchie raised his hands, plump little hands that reminded me immediately of his calves. I was suddenly very aware of my teeth and not much else. “Hardly any of those stup—of those heroic vets—lost anything worth thinking about. Bernie caught me practically right out of the gate.”
Bernie gave Frenchie a hard look. “And Chet,” he said.
“And Chet, of course. Goes without saying.”
“I like hearing it said just the same,” Bernie told him.
“Won’t let it happen again,” Frenchie said. “I’ve got nothing but respect for the Little Detective Agency.” All at once, Frenchie went still, his eyes blanking in that strange way that means a human’s gone deep in his own mind. They do a lot of that, maybe too much. No offense. “Bernie?” he said.
“Can we, uh, talk for a moment or two?”
“Sure. We’re talking right now.”
Frenchie shot Waldo a sidelong glance and lowered his voice. “I mean in private.”
“Okay with you, Waldo?” Bernie said. “Frenchie wants to talk to me in private.”
“Sure,” Waldo said. “There’s the T-Bone Bar and Grill in Dry Springs, not more than fifteen minutes’ drive from here. Why don’t you take Frenchie out for a beer, on me?”
Frenchie blinked. “Dressed like this? I’m not sure that’s—oh.” He turned to Bernie. “He’s foolin’ with me, right?”
“You’re wrong, Bernie,” Waldo said. “He’s a moron.” Waldo waved the back of his hand at Frenchie and walked away.
“If I’m such a moron,” Frenchie said, “how come I got fourteen hundred on my SATs?”
“You took the SATs?” Bernie said.
“Manner of speaking,” said Frenchie. “My kid brother Ralph took them for me, so it’s basically me, DNA-wise. Ralph’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“You’re looking to get him busted for the SAT scam, cut some kind of deal for yourself?” Bernie said.
“My own flesh and blood?” Frenchie said, putting his hand over his chest. “And even if I could, you know, get past that, the law wouldn’t be interested in Ralph. He’s a total straight arrow. The SAT caper was the only time in his whole life he even came close to the line. Which is how come I’m worried about him now.”
“He’s crossed the line?”
“Hard to imagine,” Frenchie said. “But something’s wrong for sure. Ralph’s gone missing.”