Sundown. End of another busy day in this Capitol of the High Plateau, Preskitt, town that I love. As evening shadows stretch across the Plaza with a faint rubbery sound, I’m having a double-wide latte with sprinkles in Saint Mike’s and thinking how’m I gonna afford myself a new set of mufflers for Ol’ Paint, my trusty truck. Cops t’other night said my beloved vehicle was unbelievably loud. I offered to make it more believable, but they weren’t having any. Absently I finger the documented evidence of my social infraction – the equipment warning in my shirt pocket. Got three days to get it fixed up and work has been scarce.
I’m just licking foam outta my moustache when a voice comes to me amid the hubbub and clatter, spoken in tones of wonderment and awe.
Yah, it’s me, Lance Sidesaddle, Ole West private detective, defender of the peace, and if I may add, the American Dream, here in Preskitt. With regal bearing I turn toward the speaker. A faint rusty-hinge sound indicates that my royal bearing needs greasing. The figure standing there in pressed jeans, riding boots, and a broad-brimmed hat is grinning fiercely, as if he’d thought of a joke and couldn’t wait to tell it. The stranger hands me a crisp white card.
hogans, cliff dwellings, custom log houses
I recognize the name at once. Surelog is the noted local builder of high-end green homes, car racer, and all-round philanthropist. Beneath his leather vest is a T-shirt that says, “The older I get, the faster I was.” But I don’t know the guy. He pulls up a chair, still grinning. He could do that for a living, he’s so good at it.
“Harlow High. Miss Biffle?”
My lock-box memory serves up a name to go with his face, and my eyebrows unite with my hatband. Grinning at each other, reaching back 25 years, we harmonize in falsetto, “That Will Go On Your Permanent Record. Buster.”
Others in the crowded restaurant are staring. When we can stop laughing, I choke out, “Gerg?” He knows I mean Greg. Greg Lightfeather.
“Shh-shh-shh,” my old new-found High School chum hisses, looking furtively about. “That’s not me anymore. Call me by my professional monniker, Surelog Homes, timber-splitting log home builder.”
“Sure, ‘Log. It’s only been about 20 years since my boots walked the dusty sidewalks of Harlowton. Last time I saw you we were hopping a freight to Vancouver.”
“Keep it down,” Greg – I mean Surelog – says. “Right after you got kicked in the head by that barrel racer, I got sent up for salvaging rails. I was sure that was the shut-down spur line. Finished a three-month stretch in two weeks flat. But that was then and this is now.”
He grins. I grin back. Kicked in the head. Once again I try to recall such a happening. Although I remember everything after, and quite a bit before, I know that event purely by the stories people told me over the years.
“But look,” Surelog goes on, “I was hoping I’d find you. I need to tell this to someone and I for sure don’t wanna talk to the cops. There’s a famous safecracker in town.”
“Safe cracker?” I make a rapid search of my lock-box memory, but produce zip, zero, zilch. “What would be dangerous about a cracker in the first place? Saltine? Wheat Thin? Euphrates?”
Surelog laughs. “You’re the same old Lance, alright. No, dent-noggin. A guy that robs safes.”
I nod wisely, knowingly. And he’s right. I do have a horseshoe-shaped indentation above my right temple. Surelog goes on. “Fingers McMullet – world famous safecracker. Superstar poster boy to the profession. Super hearing. It’s said he can hear tumblers in a lock from the next room. He can open the most complicated combinations in seconds, walk away with the loot.”
Hmmm, I methinks to myself quizzically. “I wonder if that has anything to do with the robbery at Smells Gofar?”
Surelog shakes his head. “Doubt it. Too sophisticated for him. He works on the old stuff, non-electronic. Plenty of those units still around. He’s been hanging around the Palace a few nights. They better look out.”
“Speaking of cops, I had a free ride in a police car last week.”
Surelog grimaces but says nothing.
“Strange night. Stopped for my rusted mufflers. Then I was out of gas. Detective Nabster gave me a ride to the Coneco and back to my truck.”
But Surelog is getting furtive again with all this chat about the law. He motions me outside and we say goodbye on the corner. The sky is dark but the Row is brightly-lit, groups of people stroll or stand conversing in small groups.
I turn from waving adieu to Surelog, and am nearly run over by two svelte escrow clerks in diaphanous gowns, dancing with abandon and sprinkling handfuls of rose petals along the sidewalk where they shall Sweeten the Earth Forevermore. Following those lovelies is a quartet of home appraisers decked out like English troubadors, playing zither, lute, tambourine and woodwind.
Tailgating this fragrant and musical nosh, atop a palanquin borne high on the shoulders of four stalwart buyers’ agents, rides Lady Real Estate Executive Mz. Blanche Flipwhiz. Reclining in regal splendor, her sharp business suit knifes through the air as she tosses complementary mortgage calculators to the admiring throng. From hidden speakers, angelic voices in choir proclaim the merits of fully-amortized adjustable-rate mortgages, interest-only MTAs, early lock-in, and declining principal balance.
A muscular bearer holds above his Stetson-bedecked head a 60-inch hi-def plasma monitor showing – via satellite uplink from her office – Mz. Flipwhiz’s Wall of Fame. The view pans over acres of her framed diplomas, trophies, prizes, awards, sales records, and honorary doctorate degrees. And there in the background, among her rows of business trophies – can that be Trump’s mounted head?
Following this, more cuties with rose petals. They are doing a little chicken dance behind the procession, kinda like poultry in motion. An impromptu conga line forms a loose caboose for this remarkable procession, the whole thing wiggin’ and jiggin’ on up the Row, Mz. Flipwhiz regally resplendent atop the whole thing.
This is a sight to truly lo and behold, but my eyebrows meet my hatband yet again when the assemblage sambas into the doorway leading to my hallowed office. Why this crowd of circus performers, aides, and savants?
On a hunch, I follow on up the stairs. The first person I meet is a Beefy Bouncer, who looks me up and down, down and up, and sniffs haughtily, giving me much too clear a view of his 12-guage nostrils.
“No drunks, riff-raff or ne’er-do-wells in the Royal Presence. Begone.”
“Really,” I muse. “And whom is the Royal Presence here to see?”
“As if it’s any of your business,” Beefy Bouncer sniffs, “but she has a private audience with the famous detective.”
That’s when I remember – three nights ago there was a phone call, making an appointment for this very evening. I’ll have to talk my way in. I flip Beefy Bouncer my card.
“You must mean Sir Lancelot Sidesaddle,” I say fondly, awarding myself a long-awaited knighthood. “I’m his lackey. I have to get him curry-combed before his meeting.”
Comprehension fills Beefy Bouncer’s eyes. We have become equals. Gracing me with a parting view of his cavernous nostrils and large frown on the side, he stands back.
“Sir Lancelot’s Royal Lackey comin’ through,” Beefy Bouncer bellows balefully.
I elbow my way along the corridor through a cadre of flamenco dancers attempting a paso doble in the confined space. Finally, after being patted down and passing through a portable security screener, I am allowed into my very own office.
Mz. Flipwhiz reposes in a Queen Anne chair perfectly centered on a red-bordered Persian rug beside my beat-up oaken schoolhouse desk. She turns from the documents an aide is holding for her signature, and a smile of radiant light fills the room.
“Hello, Mr. Sidesaddle, so glad you could take a few minutes to meet with me. Oops, excuse – “
She breaks off what seemed a promising conversation to speak rapidly sotto voce into her cell phone. I catch snatches such as ‘counter,’ ‘no way,’ ‘California lowball,’ and ‘those complete idiots.’ She folds up the phone and graces me with another sunshine smile.
“My sources tell me you’re a real fixture around these parts. I understand you can be very effective in your investigations. But first some polite chit-chat. Have you been in Preskitt long, Mr. Sidesaddle?”
That takes me back. W-a-a-a-y back.
“Well, about a dozen years ago, I heard Preskitt described as a wonderful modern village lacking an idiot. I made it a point to get here first. Many other hopefuls stuck around, though word had leaked out that the job was taken. But like in sports, it’s good to know you have depth at every position.”
She laughs. “Ah, Mr. Sidesaddle, I see you are a scandalous, criminal-arresting, slippery, nebulous wit.”
The twinkle in her eye brings me an instant of recognition. I grin back at her, looking for a polite yet fun rejoinder that will let her know that I, also, have a sense of humor too.
“Very nice, lady. The last time I saw a mouth like that, there was a hook in it.”
Several members of her assemblage bristle and begin to advance menacingly, but she stops them with an absent flick of her gold-encrusted fan.
“Stay,” she commands, not looking around. Everyone snaps to parade rest.
“Ha!” She goes on with a smile. “I like a truly homely man, one of cruel wit, although a witless barb, a clumsy lance.”
“Fabulous,” I rejoin amicably. “And do you open yer mouth for reasons other than to change feet?”
“Enough chit-chat, ruffian. Let’s talk biz. I am known as Queen of the Earth. I sell the ground back to those who would walk on it. I made nine billion dollars last month. I have at this time 500 phone messages waiting. I pick and choose. I may not take a party on as clients unless the signs are right.”
There’s more, and it takes a while – I can see that having a conversation with this woman will resemble controlling a runaway truck. As she yammers on, I get the impression I’m hearing a memorized script. Her face is young, but she has a somewhat slack, un-worked out body.
I feel compelled to butt in. “Ya know, you remind me of modern art.”
She tilts her head with a puzzled smile. “How so?”
“You’re fabulous to look at, but I have no idea what you’re saying.”
She laughs, a golden melodic sound. “Ha! A compliment in disguise. I’ll take it.”
Then, with the slightest flick of her golden fan, the trapeze artists, aides, bearers, caterers, and camp followers retreat into the corridor. One last assistant darts in for her signature on a contract. The door swings shut with a discreet click. She closes her eyes, and inhales deeply. When she opens them she is almost a different person.
“Well, Mr. Sidesaddle – “
Her head tilts to the side. “Lance, then. I’m so glad you could see me. Your name is legendary for several blocks in all directions. But I hear you help people find things – find things that they’ve lost. I’ve been a busy girl, Lance, though I’m not a girl anymore. I spent a billion dollars last year having work done,” she points at her too-young face.
“Plastic surgery? How do you even find the time?”
“It’s done while I sleep. Everything gets done for me. That’s just it. I don’t know who I am anymore. I started making money, then got so good at it I forgot how to do anything else.”
Now I get it. With all the wealth, power, et cetera a woman can have, she’s after the one thing she can’t buy – happiness.
“What did you used to do? I mean when life was normal.”
She takes a deep breath and smiles. “Ride horseback with my kids, make jam. My prickly pear jelly won prizes at the fair for several years. But I delegated the living part. Now I’m just this machine that makes money. Queen of the Earth. What rubbish. I feel more like a mechanical queen bee, living for the hive.”
“Well ya know,” I begin, “just having the question is enough of the answer lady. Just keep asking the question. That part’s free.”
“I’m not used to doing things gradually.”
“Yah, well instant gratification sometimes takes too gol durn long. But, I have just what you need.”
Her face shows relief. “Do you, Lance? I’ll pay you any amount of money.”
I allow myself a small, doubtful frown. “That’s the tricky thing. Cain’t be bought.” I take out a pad and sketch a rough map. “Be here ‘round four tomorrow morning. Have someone drop you. Wear hiking clothes. You’ll see a light. Walk to it, that’s where I’ll be.”
Her eyebrows arch at the four a.m. bit, but she agrees. She bids a professional yet fond farewell, snaps her fingers, and in a twinkling she is whisked atop the palanquin, and the whole assemblage exits toward the stairwell. As many feet clomp down my stairs, I hear her cell phone, fax machine, email, scanner and copier whirring in obedient chorus. I can almost hear the money pouring into her personal bank account. I sit back in my beat-up oak chair.
What she needs will take care of itself, all she has to do is show up. But my mind turns back to two things: new mufflers, and a dangerous cracker. The mufflers will be tough, thinks I, at which moment I notice the summons is gone from my shirt pocket. Blanche’s screeners neglected to return it. Yikes and carramba.
But Fingers McMullet I can manage. Hmmm. Hanging at the Palace is he? I bounce the available clues about in the hollow recesses of my lock-box memory. Super-sensitive hearing. Likes Happy Hour. Bit of a show-off. Ha! Got it.
Before long I’m enjoying the evening on Whiskey Row, lounging about the entrance to the Palace bar, listening to the detuned honky-tonk strains of Louie Lewis wafting over the sidewalk through the swingin’ doors. Sidewalk passersby in the warm night ogle me like a curio of the Old West.
Through the window, I can see Louie at the piano. He and I are dressed alike: black bowler hat, striped white shirt with red arm bands, dark jeans, boots. He plays good, but like any seasoned performer, will pace himself, eventually take a break.
The lights are dim inside the old bar room, but as I casually scan the folks at the tables I see one guy could be who I’m after. You know, the safecracker. Yeah, him. McMullet. And as I listen to the piano, I am reminded of its perpetual foul tuning. The soundboard is cracked, strings haven’t been voiced since the day it was knocked together, a couple of the keys don’t even play. Doesn’t matter much to honky-tonk tunes, in fact it helps. But every so often my suspect twitches as though poked with a hatpin and scowls at the piano, then with a slight shiver goes back to his beer.
At last, the moment I’ve been waiting for. Louie gets up, grabs a glass of sarsaparilla from the bar, and goes out back.
Craftily I sidle through the swingin’ doors, trying to mimic Louie’s walk. Nobody really notices as I plunk down on the piano bench and start to play. I don’t know the same honky-tonk Louie plays, I’m more into old blues tunes. And besides, the place is well beyond its second or third round. Conversation continues loud and carefree as I let go a few riffs from Sweet Georgia Brown. As I play, I hunt down the most wretched note on the keyboard, and finally there it is – directly between F and G-flat – a sound so painful it will make even the most tone-deaf rock guitarist twitch. I grab a chord around that nefarious note and really work it.
Out of the corner of my eye I see the guy, yah, him, jerk spasmodically and roll his eyes toward the ceiling. A table of east-coast visitors looks over and laughs – they get it – must be from Juliard. Most folks in the room just wince involuntarily and go on with their eating, drinking, conversing, and carousing. But not my guy. He’s on his feet now, staring right at me, and looks like he’s in pain. Eyeing him fiendishly, I work back to my favorite chord, an undocumented seventh, right in the middle of that ruined section of the strings.
The conversation, noise and laughter get louder in the room. A stack of dishes hits the floor. I figure this is an involuntary attempt to drown me out. But it’s killing me too, I won’t be able to put up with it for long. And neither will he.
How can I be sure? Because here he comes. Because he’s staggering like Frankenstein’s baby steps. Because he’s sweating, because his face is contorted as if someone is driving hot spikes into his ears. And someone is, figuratively speaking. And that someone is little me.
He places a delicate hand on my shoulder, clutching my shirt. I can see the sensitive, long, tapered, safecracking fingers. Just for fun, I noodle the worst-tuned notes I can find. He winces. He speaks, grating out the words that are part curse, part fervent prayer.
“Hey buddy, I’ll give you five thousand dollars just to stop.”
I look at him with a bland, innocent smile. “Stop? You mean this?”
I give him a couple more dischordant harmonies, and throw in a tormented thirteenth. He grimaces. “Ten thousand. Now.”
In his hand is a thick white envelope, extended toward me.
I stop playing. In the restaurant there is a collective sigh, blowing both sets of the swinging doors momentarily outward. I wait a beat, until hub meets bub to beget hubbub.
“Fine,” I say, reaching out my hand. His face relaxes and he begins to smile, thinking I have taken the bait. I can see it in his face – easy money, rule the world. But oh, no, not your Knight of the Realm, Sir Lancelot Sidesaddle.
Now students, watch this. I reach out as though to accept the proffered bribe, and palm the handcuffs I so recently borrowed from Detective Nabster during my free ride in the police car. With a swift click-click, I flick one cuff over his wrist, clamp the other around the sturdy leg of the old piano, and step back. McMullet’s face clouds with swarthy anger.
“You moron, what are you doing?”
I remove the white envelope from my prisoner’s astonished grip and hold it to my ear. Just as I suspected, I hear the dulcet tones of Franklins and Jacksons in mixed chorus. The more I listen, I can almost hear them harmonizing the tender lyrics: Lance, let’s blow this joint and go have some fun. But I ignore their siren song and say No To Satan.
Waving the envelope mockingly in his face, I declare, “Fingers McMullet, your game is up. All the way up. If I’m not mistaken, this loot is from the hotel safe. And you are on a one-way trip to the hoosegow.”
Leaving my captive cursing and helpless, I hand the envelope to the surprised barkeep, thus returning the loot before they found it missing. A quick word or two and he’s on the phone to the law, while I’m out the door, ignoring an admirer’s slurred request for Melancholy Baby.
No time to rest on my laurels. I make a quick visit to my office to doff the piano player duds and get my real persona back – Shady Brady, leather vest, stained chaps, snakeskin boots with one spur missing – and before you can say habeas corpus I’m heading off over the ridge.
I keep Ol’ Paint’s engine as quiet as possible, becuz the mufflers are truly unbearable. There’s a bicycle at Yakking Boulders Ranch – my spread – I gotta oil up and adjust it before I get to my spirit-calling with Mz. Flipwhiz. She doesn’t yet know that’s what it is.
So it’s a busy night, and by the time four o’clock in the morning rolls around, I have parked my noisy truck at an overlook on the dark eastern slope of Thumb Butte and walked the quarter-mile to a clearing. I switch on a little flashlight with a gold filter and hang it in a tree. Then I look at the stars a while. Doesn’t matter how many times I see the night sky, always affects me the same way. When I look up I feel like I’m falling right into it.
It’s not too long I hear footsteps coming up the path. She’s quiet, I’ll give her that. Didn’t hear any vehicles, and her footfalls are very soft. In the starlight I can tell she’s wearing jeans, a light sweater, and leather moccasins. Good. I can also make out her bright smile.
“So, Lance. What do I do?”
“Pull up a stump and watch over yonder. And be quiet.”
She follows my gaze toward the east where the sky is a brighter pale of shade. We both sit.
She’s a lucky one, she is. I sure didn’t plan it this way. Or maybe it was in her stars to ask for my help this particular night. Anyway here comes the moon, not a big bright moon but a disk of faint blue earthshine with the finest edging of pure gold around the lower arc, the side facing down toward where the sun waits below the horizon.
We’re both quiet as this grand vision moves majestically up the sky, while the dark fades from the cool morning air, the breezes stir and the birds begin to wake each other in the dark trees. Then finally it’s here, a fierce ruby on a distant mountaintop that grows from a single point to a flattened orange disk standing on the horizon, the sky full light now. We’re both staring into that flaming orb like it’s kinda hypnotic. We can still see the faint crescent moon suspended above the fireball sun.
I’m still staring, and I’ll admit I’m awestruck as usual, when I notice she has turned from the flaming majesty of a new-minted day and she’s standing there looking up at me. I look down at her. That perfect radiant face of hers has a new light now. I can see she gets it, why she’s here.
The new golden sunlight glances off her hair from behind, making a kind of halo effect.
“Mr. Sidesaddle,” she says quietly, “you are a Saint.”
That makes me think. “Hmmm, sainthood is tricky business. There’s a five-year waiting period. And I’m pretty sure you have to be a dead person before you can apply. Thanks but no thanks.”
She turns to look at the just-risen sun, the flame that still hangs reflected on the distant mountain tops.
“You have an interesting place, out there beyond the ridge.”
“Thanks. I call it Yakking Boulders State Park, or if I’m in the right mood, Yakking Boulders Ranch. It’s my therapeutic ranch for wayward grownups.”
“I wonder if you would like to lust it?”
Hmmm, I think to myself, must be a new real estate term.
But she’s turned beet red in the morning sunshine, fanning the air between us like she’s erasing a blackboard. “List it!”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing, she wants me to sell my home sweet home?
“You scoped my ranch? You want me to sell my place?”
Now she looks confused, like I said something inappropriate. “Wouldn’t life be easier if you had a little money?”
I edge around so she gets a face full of the rising sun when she looks at me. “What do you know about what I’ve got, lady? What gol durn business is that of yours? Where do I live if I give up my spread? And who the heck buys it, some developer? I think that’s way too nosy!”
Now she’s holding both hands out in a placating gesture. Her face looks like she’s preparing to calm a small berserk puppy. “No, Lance, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“What did you mean then? I brought you up here because you asked for a reality check. You got it cuz I know you got it. Then you’re right back into buying and selling, with MY LAND. I gotta go.”
Her small hand is on my arm. Her face is distraught. “No, Lance, please don’t. I am sorry. Old habits are hard to break. I’m sorry I ruined this wonderful moment you made for me.”
I look down at her. I wonder if she’s about to be arrested, because suddenly I’m getting those…
I take a deep breath and relax. “Apology accepted, but still I gotta go.”
“What do I owe you for your – therapy?” Her hand is still on my arm.
I shake my head, gesturing at the bright sky. “No charge. This can’t be bought and sold.”
“Are you sure, Lance?”
“No, Lance, I’m a single empty-nester these days.”
For a minute I just stand there and look at her. Any day now some lucky guy is going to bump into her and… wow. But such a fate is no doubt reserved for some handsome hombre with fancy cars and lotsa dough, not for a schlub who orders his lattes double-wide because that looks like up from where he hangs his hat.
I smile at her to let her know it’s all OK. “There’s a bicycle down by my truck. Get you back to town.”
I turn and walk down the dusty road, but can’t shake my last glimpse of her sun-struck face, one small tear edging its way down a smooth cheek.
I take the bike out of Ol’ Paint’s bed and set it against a rock. Get in and start up, the radio comes on loud like it’s been lately to cover up the unbearable mufflers. I’m about a mile down the road when the song ends, and what I hear is silence. I roll down the window. Ol’ Paint is purring like a big fat happy cat. Puzzled, I stop and get out.
On my knees beside my trusty truck I see two brand new glass-packs bolted underneath. All the pipes under there look new, and the sound that flows from the twin mufflers wouldn’t disturb a nest of baby bunnies. In the engine room I see brand-new headers, a new air filter, a new power steering pump, lots of fresh-looking belts, hoses and clamps. When I close the hood, it latches snug the first time.
On the seat there’s a piece of paper. My eyebrows go up yet again when I see it’s my equipment warning. There’s neat writing on it. Feminine writing.
I guessed you wouldn’t let me pay you, so I did you a little favor. Hope you don’t mind.
There should be more men like you.
I drive on down the hill in the first hour of primal daylight, thinking happy thoughts. Not a bad night. I’d clapped the cuffs on a famous saltine, and rescued a too-successful woman from her own captivity. Kind of like saving the fair maiden from the dragon. That’s a simile. Read it in Psych Today, but no matter. Simile? Maybe it’s a brick.
The twin pipes of Ol’ Paint my trusty truck burble softly as I make my way along Copper Basin, heading for the ridge.
A Lance Sidesaddle SagaBy Lance Sidesaddle
A pale and merciless sky stretches to infinity over the vast Mogollon Plateau. Towers of summer thunderheads mass on the far horizon, dark undersides laced with ragged lightning. This land is barren, empty, save for two fast ponies rushing down the precarious face of a rugged escarpment, dodging among dark shadows of massive boulders. The lead horse carries two, a sinewy hombre in a black hat and a slim woman in leather with a fringed buckskin skirt. And although she hangs on tightly, she does not want to be with that man, or on that horse.
Their pursuer is a muscular fellow of rugged good looks, tall, capable, a man of heroic stature and unbending intent. Face set in purposeful lines, his squinted eyes seek out ahead for the best place to overtake the fleeing pair. Yah, it’s me, Lance Sidesaddle, defender of the peace, hot on their trail.
I must catch them, and soon, for less than a mile from the dust of Ol’ Paint’s thundering hooves is a sheer drop where the mesa was carved away by glaciers aeons ago. Durn those pesky glaciers. The woman does not want to be on that horse, but at this frantic pace among the rocks, to jump means certain death. The man, facing multiple life sentences for hoss stealin’, stage robbin’, and out-of-season apple bobbin’, has nothing to lose. To this nefarious all-purpose hoodlum of the Southwest, an innocent life means less than zilch. Shady Grady – the unprincipled cad – is not a man. He is a twisted, ugly thing. Bleah.
I see my advantage as our horses hit the flat. Just a hunnert feet from where the mesa ends and the wild blue yonder begins, a small wooden cabin stands. I can just catch them by the time we reach it, and then…
I’ll get to that. For now, I’m aware only of the steady beat of Ol’ Paint’s mighty hooves, an insistent drumbeat across the hard-packed earth. I call on my trusty steed to pick up the pace and he responds magnificently. The gap closes as we near the cabin, but will it be in time?
A sudden distraction, shockingly out of place in this vast and arid wasteland – a beguiling, sensuous aroma. I peer into my lock-box memory but at the moment come up with nada. It’s too far out of context. But as I close in on the fleeing pair, I’m certain of one thing: in the rustic cabin ahead, something yummy’s in the oven.
At the last instant, Grady veers his mount sharply, directly into the cabin’s dark open doorway. I gasp – this is idiocy, suicide! The girl’s scream is torn away on the wind. The horse and riders are swallowed whole and vanish. For me there is no choice, for heroically follow I must. Ol’ Paint re-doubles his stride, plunging fiercely toward the pitch-black opening. I think I see movement inside, and ready my lariat for the capture. First I’ll yank Grady roughly to the ground, then the girl will fling herself into my manly arms, her tears of gratitude anointing my weathered face.
This moment of forgivable hubris evaporates with a soft pop as my trusty horse suddenly, from a full gallop, sits down, puts on the brakes, skids to a stop, comes to an abrupt halt, et cetera. I have a momentary split second to form the quizzical thought: And what about me?
The three laws of motion authored by Sir Issac Newton in the seventeenth century dole out my fate. An object in motion tends to remain in motion.
Me = Object.
Helpless, I remain in motion, right between Ol’ Paint’s pointy ears, perfectly through the uprights like a game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter. I glimpse a noncommittal shrug from the noble steed as I fly past and into the cabin’s darkened interior, falling, falling, falling…
Everything. Goes. Into. Slow. Motion. I drift downward, prepared for a bone-shattering impact followed by an eternity of inky blackness. No matter. It will be worthwhile if I can save the girl. But I feel myself, as in a dream, make soft contact with what seems to be a long wooden table. My body in slo-mo drapes itself comfortably into a chair and across the cool surface in a friendly way, as if I’d been sleeping face-down for half the afternoon. A heavenly aroma graces my nostrils, an aroma that can waft only from a plate of Grandmother Sidesaddle’s chocolate chip cookies. Grandma, is that you?
I open my eyes, and see books. Bright lights, clumps of people with curious faces, and books. Thousands of books, shelves of books that stretch into the hazy distance in all directions, and right before me, a plate of perfect cookies!
Slowly I raise my head, disoriented, searching the eyes of the silent onlookers, looking in vain for Shady Grady and the girl. But no matter. My eyes fall to the glorious plate. MMM – mmm! I sit up alertly and extend a questing hand…
Mz. Maven Bookwhiz of the Preskitt Public Library adroitly snatches the plate away, bearing the life-giving confections out of my reach and to a place of repose in the staff lounge. She tosses a stern reminder over her shoulder.
“You were snoring, Mr. Slapswaddle. Silence in Your Public Library. Please.”
A chorus of giggles rises from the hushed assemblage as they begin to drift away to the other tables. I hear someone’s whispered remark, “She tried everything to wake that inflated putz. Cookies. How brilliant!”
I ignore the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and quiz myself: What Am I Doing In My Public Library? No matter. I rise from my chair, resolute, once again a figure of authority, totally in command.
“Nothing to see here folks. It’s over. Return to your homes.”
Muffled sniggers and shushing sounds from the vigilant staff follow me outside. I sit on a bench and take stock. It’s a beautiful day in Preskitt, town that I love. But no wonder I fell asleep – it’s the middle of the afternoon! And I, defender of the peace, prowl by night. What am I doing up at this hour? And then it hits me like an impertinent flash flood.
I was staking out the library to discover the criminal perpetrator behind an overdue book. Any one of Preskitt’s two-bit hoodlums could be responsible. These vermin are after the book because of an upcoming lecture by a noted detective, announced in the Yavapai College adult ed catalogue:
Apprehend your inner sleuth!
Visiting lecturer and noted case-solver, Shirley I. Buttinsky, will talk about admission to her Hard-boiled School of Detection. One session only, Dancing Divots Golf Club. Bring yourself up-to-date on Modern Methods to Foil the Criminal Mind. Prerequisite: Hard Boiled Crime Detection for Dimwits, by Ace Beagle, available at Preskitt Public Library.
Having met Mz. Buttinsky once at a lecture in Fargo, I am obviously far too advanced to spend time in such a class, but my sidekick powers awoke from their slumbers as I read the ad, and informed me politely that all the hoods in town will be there. Why? They will be thinkin’ they need to think like the forces of Good are thinkin’ – such as the cops, school crossing guards, and li’l ole me.
The Ace Beagle book is indeed a classic, and valuable. Pluswhich, anyone who studies its pages would know how to work it either way – good guy, bad guy. I’d been pleasantly surprised that Your Public Library boasts a copy. I’d come to peruse the book, but some Devious Perpetrator had got there first, lifted the valuable tome from the Crimestoppers section, and skipped, spoiling the class for everyone else. How antisocial. Hard-boiled Crime Detection for Dimwits is not for dummies.
But no matter. The class is tonight, I must obey the hour. I walk swiftly to my trusty truck Ol’ Paint in Preskitt’s totally up-to-date parking structure, and head off in the gathering dusk.
It is full dark when I reach the mucho-swanko Dancing Divots Golf Club. A slender crescent moon hangs over the black rim of distant hills. Nice meeting room close to the front desk, should hold about a dozen students. Or villains-in-waiting. I’m strategically early. I want to take the roll personally, it will read like a who’s who of nefarious local bad people. Hmm, I say to myself: Self, you must be a little too early, because you’re the only one in the swank meeting room. So I’m sitting here entertaining me with various crime-foiling methods and this interloper lopes in with a vacuum cleaner.
He’s got a nerve, this one, opens his fat yap and says, “Scuse me, buddy. Gotta sweep.”
I clear my throat. “Isn’t this the Hard-boiled Crime Detection lecture?”
“They moved it because of the turnout. Main auditorium down the hall.”
I amble on down to the auditorium. Man! Packed to the rafters it is, a hubbub of furtive conversation amid the exchange of sly winks and nods. I was right, this is Grand-larceny Central Station.
Preparing her materials on the small stage, a charming woman, quite a figure for a legendary crime-solver. Wow. Her off-pink pantsuit is tight in all the right places. Long auburn hair flows over smartly-padded shoulders with the luxuriant sheen of a caramel apple. Her glistening lips approach the microphone, delicately shaping the elegant words, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…,” thus proving she can count higher than your average sound engineer.
I clamp down on the fleeting thought that I’d like to invite her out for miniature golf and a chili dog, and focus on a glaring fact: when I met the legendary crime-solver in Fargo eight years ago she was gray-haired, a bit zaftig, and past sixty. So I can’t help wondering: exactly whom is this impostor, anyhow?
The last seat is taken, I’m forced to stand at the back of the hall. However this works to my advantage, I can see every one of Preskitt’s neer-do-wells, including – yes, there he is – Shady Grady, perched in a chair by the door directly beneath a big black hat. He’s hunched protectively over something bulky in his lap. Can it be? It certainly can. A library book! My sidekick powers tell me it’s either overdue or illegally purloined. But that distinction will have to wait.
The satin voice of the super-glam Mz. Buttinsky floats from the PA system.
“Uno, dos, tres, quattro, cinco, seis, siete…”
With a small smile, she clears her ladylike throat and begins her lecture. In seconds the crowd is raptly attentive, attentively rapt, totally in her thrall, clinging to every silken syllable she softly speaks. She moves through the basics: hunches, intelligent guesswork, clues, forensics. For an impostor, her talk is nicely paced. She slinks to and fro, fro and to. After about ten minutes, she throws a few puzzlers to the audience.
“Alright everyone,” Mz. Buttinsky, or whoever, continues, “here’s a situation for you. Suppose you are the teller of a bank, let’s say Bank One. Someone comes to your window and hands you a note which says, give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be free… oops wrong note. Which says: give me all your dough. Then you notice the note is written on a Bank Two deposit slip. What do you do?”
Shifty Sam raises his hand, “I know, I know. Tell him to fill out a Bank One withdrawal slip or go back to Bank Two.”
“Very good. Yes sir, you at the back.”
I already have my hand up. “Actually, for your information, no self-respecting bank robber would waste their time holding up that bank. They sent me a letter admitting they have insufficient funds.”
A chorus of agreement transforms into muffled titters. The lecturer smiles coyly and continues.
“Now suppose you are a bank manager. You arrive at work this fine morning and see a long chain attached to one of your ATMs. What do you do?”
This time Shady Grady gets his hand up first. “Look at the other end of the chain. If there’s a bumper attached to it, then – ”
“Right,” I interject commandingly. “Then advertise the bumper and the chain for sale, cheap. The crooks will call you.” I fold my arms confidently, trying not to appear too smug. Let them chew on that for awhile.
Mz. Buttinsky throws a pert feminine scowl my way. Grady turns around and says petulantly, “No fair, my hand was up. What I was going to say is, look on the bumper and write down the license plate to tell the heat, er, I mean, the nice policemen.”
“Very good, class,” Mz. Buttinsky beams at Grady. The injustice! If only she knew?but on she goes. “Now we will have a break in the lecture, during which all of you will write a short exam.”
Groans, and the usual shuffling as test papers are handed out, pens are borrowed, assorted attendees dash for assorted rest rooms. Mz. Buttinsky announces that we have thirty minutes, and departs the stage. All heads bend to the task of completing the short exam. It’s quite simple for me, I reminisce over my long and illustrious career as I read it through. Then I hit my worst nightmare: an essay question. Write a concise short essay on cleanliness, mystery, and religion.
I throw down my pencil in disgust, thinking ‘Holy Smoke, I haven’t had a bath in 35 years, how can you expect me to remember now?’
Without warning, my super-sleuth intuition nudges my elbow and I look up. A-ha! Our Mr. Shady Grady is not in his seat! And our fair instructress is likewise nowhere to be seen. Undetected, I slip out the rear exit.
Outside, all is dark. And quiet. Too-o-o-o quiet. But I hear distant, whispered voices, and can barely discern two figures standing near a shadowy row of golf carts in a pool of dark. As I creep stealthily toward them in the dimness, my foot encounters a discarded Atkins Shake. The empty can rolls toward the furtive pair, rattling and bouncing against the curb. Abruptly the two leap into a golf cart and whirr away on the path toward the first tee.
I, too, leap upon a waiting vehicle.
A dark star-flecked sky stretches to velvet infinity over the Dancing Divots Golf Club. Towers of summer thunderheads mass on the far horizon like stacked bagels. The darkened greensward is barren, empty, save for two vehicles lumbering along the smoothly-paved cart path, dodging between the arcs of spray cast by ominous sprinkler heads that pop from the turf and squirt menacingly in all directions. The lead vehicle, a golf cart, carries two, a sinewy hombre in a black hat and a slim woman in a smart pantsuit. I think I hear the smart pantsuit reciting T.S. Eliot, but the words are torn away on the wind. Although she hangs on tightly, she does not want to be with that man, or on that golf cart. Or. Does. She. Really?
Their pursuer is a hefty fellow of once-rugged good looks, formerly of heroic stature. Face set in purposeful lines as he tries to control his roaring vehicle, this man’s eyes squint through billows of smoke for the best place to overtake the fleeing pair. Yah, you got it – me. Kaff kaff.
In the rush to pursue these evildoers from the parking lot, I’d leapt astride the last in a lineup of shadowy vehicles. I thought I’d copped a small airplane – stubby shapes protrude from the sides at a rakish angle – but actually it’s a three-bank lawn mower. Bravely I accept the hand Blind Fate has dealt me. This will surely be an epic struggle – noisy, smoky internal combustion versus silent, clean electric power – if I can avoid slicing myself to ribbons in the process.
I must catch them, and soon, for less than a chip shot from my wildly whirling blades is a sheer drop where the cart path was shorn away by developers hours ago. Durn those pesky developers. The woman Shirley surely does not want to be on that cart, but fleeing between the hissing sprinklers at eleven miles per hour, to jump would mean certain drench. Facing multiple slaps on the wrist, the teacher-impressin’, up-stagin’, library-book robbin’ driver has nothing to lose. To this nefarious all-purpose hoodlum of the Southwest, an overdue book means less than zilch. Shady Grady – the unprincipled cad – is not a man, he is a twisted, ugly thing. Most likely with a twelve handicap. Bleah.
But hark! Borne on the otherwise-fragrant evening breeze, a sudden olfactory disturbance, shockingly out of place in this lush golfer’s paradise. I rummage through my mental lock-box and come up with – yes, there it is! A porta-toidy. I can just catch them by the time we reach it, and then…
I’ll get to that. For now, I’m only aware of the mower’s powerful motor, the hum of the studded tires on pavement, the insistent sharp sibilance of the menacing metallic blades. I drive my foot more roughly against the pedal, calling on my trusty steed to pick up the pace and it responds magnificently: a quarter-RPM more. The gap closes as we near the porta-johnny, but will it be in time?
Then Grady makes a deadly blunder. He sees the muddy ditch and veers off the paved surface, up the gently sloping green. The conveyance slows to a virtual halt, its rear wheel spinning against the slick grass in soggy futility. And in that instant, I pounce.
I drive my smoking, whirling contraption gently but firmly against the golf cart’s nose, and their machine begins sliding backward. Both of them are standing now, frantic, looking for a way to jump clear, but there is no escape. Grady finally makes his move and leaps from the cart, backward, away from the gnashing blades. But he fails to see that I have fiendishly pushed them hard against the dark opening of the porta-biffy. He vanishes from sight with a blood-curdling yell of anger and resignation that fades from hearing.
I shut off the motor and all is still, save for the hissing sprinklers and distant curses echoing from beneath Grady’s big black hat, discarded and alone on the porta-pooty’s seat. The woman is standing in the golf cart, clutching the roof. Even in the faint starlight I can see she’s lovely. Take away the circumstances – her foul foul plot, her impersonation, the stolen library book – and I could see asking her out for a bowl of chili. Sorry toots, I have a mission.
“Alright, Mz. Impostor, or whomever you may be,” I snarl with unshaven masculine innuendo. “I need to see Your Library Card.”
Sadly, she can only shake her head. That clinches is – without a Library Card, my last hope for her is inexorably dashed.
“Alright, then hand over the book. Your clever little game is up.”
She bats her false eyelashes coquettishly, but her heart’s not really in it. Meekly, she extends a large heavy-ish object into my waiting hands. I flip on my patented Lance Sidesaddle Spy-Lite, and my eyes behold the sacred cover. The title alone speaks volumes: Hard-boiled Crime Detection for Dimwits, by Ace Beagle.
Car headlights rake across the green, coming downhill toward us through the blackness. The flashing reds and blues atop the white cars give the impression a birthday cake is floating toward me through the night.
In seconds we are surrounded. Detective Nabster approaches.
“Sidesaddle! What have you got?”
“Arrest her, Frank. She’s impersonating the famous detective.”
“Shirley I. Buttinsky.”
“No, really, you were doing fine.”
“Anyhoo, she enlisted Shady Grady to steal this valuable book from Your Public Library. A con for a con. You’ll find him under that hat in there.”
It is over within minutes. The pert pretender gives me an assortment of hard-boiled looks as she’s led away in handcuffs. The smart pantsuit merely snubs me. I don’t mind. But I do begin to wonder – why is it whenever I meet someone I really like, she’s about to be arrested?
The disingenuous duo is placed in separate patrol cars. Soon the birthday cakes recede over the rise and I am once again alone in the dark. Alone that is, except for Detective Nabster’s parting words ringing in my ears:
Nice work, Sidesaddle.
I’ll have them engraved on my arm forthwith. Grateful yet manly tears well in my eyes. At last, a gram of respect from the local gendarmes – and he actually pronounced my name correctly!
Once again I allow myself to feel the warm glow of satisfaction, the sense of lending a helping hand, the humble pride of the unsung hero. The girl is gone, but her devious plan has been foiled. Preskitt, the town I love, will pass another night in peaceful dreams. Mz. Bookwhiz at Your Public Library will be grateful to get the Ace Beagle volume back. MMM-mmm! I can almost smell that plate of cookies.
My single spur chimes a contented rhythm as I climb the rise, heading for my trusty truck in the peaceful Arizona night.
By Lance Sidesaddle
When it begins to turn chilly in the Old West, when autumn starts its long decline into winter, when civilized folks become a bit rushed, preoccupied, a little less polite – to me it feels kinda like the Fall of Western Civilization. A coolish November afternoon on Courthouse Plaza turns its leaf-strewn face toward sundown. Sure, work is done for most honest Preskitt folks, but my job as defender of the peace is just about to commence.
Yah, you’ve heard of me – Lance Sidesaddle, private detective. Student of all principles of deduction. And this week I’m taking a refresher course on a hum-dinger – cause and defect.
For some reason I don’t go straight to my office this night. I have a sneaky seventh sense suggesting something suspicious. So I cruise around aimlessly, paying attention, soaking up clues like a biscuit in gravy. I see a bunch of random things: a spy thriller movie with double-takeout popcorn at the Prescott Valley Harkins, a furtive green pickup running the red on Lee Boulevard, two dudes sitting ominously in a big black crew cab in front of Kendall’s on the Plaza. To the ordinary intellect, these things would not appear connected. But to my sidekick powers –
From somewhere, a horse neighs nervously. I duck involuntarily and look around. Although this is usually not a good sign, this time I can relax, cuz there she is, a nice little roan with a hand-tooled saddle, hitched to the rail betwixt Bucky’s Bean Bag and The Worm. This is the only spot on Whiskey Row with a hitchin’ post anymore. Stores all closed along Montezuma, her rider’s prolly glugging down a beer up the block. I give her some popcorn from my bag before headin’ on up to my office in this fleabag hotel overlooking the Plaza.
I know something’s wrong the moment I enter the long corridor. Light spills into the dingy hallway from my open office door. A radio turned low plays the D-backs at home against the Padres. My radio. I stand in the doorway. Two plainclothes lounge in my chairs, one with a couple of his big feet on my desk. The other one’s asleep.
“Where you been, Widewaddle?” the awake cop asks. “You’re usually on time.”
“I plead the fifth,” I say handsomely.
Sleepy cop wakes up enough to roll his eyes in exasperation.
“Soapsaddle, you’re confined to your office for the night,” says Awake cop. “We’re trying to wrap up a case and don’t need any of your – help.”
Sleepy cop chuckles. “Yeah, we don’t need your professional findings from Court TV.”
Both of them stand, making for the door.
“If you hear of anything let us know.” Sleepy cop hands me a crisp white card.
Awake cop says, “Frank, let’s get a latte. You’re on autopilot.”
Sleepy cop waves it away in a ‘whatever’ gesture, and they’re off into the night.
I pocket his card. I’m just brushing the dirt from my desktop when the phone rings. A shrill, harsh, grating sound. Nagging, familiar. Reluctantly I pick it up, and even before I hear the voice, I know. It’s her. I get an instant mental flash of a tall woman in faded jeans, a stained work shirt with bunched-up sleeves, ropy-muscled arms flipping a yearling to the dirt of a Wyoming branding pen.
Women are complicated, which is an established fact. And Montana is a complicated woman. A long trail of evidence attests to this phenomenon of nature: the lumps on my noggin from her cast-iron skillet, the scars on my calf from her trained attack ferret, the multiple contusions on my male ego. What we had was more than a fling, but it didn’t last. All I have is the fading memory of what might have been. She has her occasional phone calls to remind me of how deeply she was disappointed – by me, the Village Idiot of the Universe.
“Montana,” I mutter in surprised confusion. “How are – “
“Don’t start with me, you lout. I need that casserole dish my auntie Alice gave me.”
Typical of Montana, she hadn’t actually moved out. Her stuff is still neatly arrayed throughout my singlewide beyond the ridge. Her stuff? Most of it is our wedding presents. She just phones me every so often to ask – actually it’s more of a demand – that I send one of her valued possessions. She was moving out via DHL in slow, painful degrees. Our relationship hasn’t been great for a long time, and now it’s like the Voyage of the Demand.
“Have you gained weight?” She demands. She assumes I’ll send the dish with no further discussion. Unfortunately, we both know she’s right. Now she’s on to Eternal Topic A, my weight.
“Um, I – “
“You sound heavy. You’ve gained again. Does the scale come around to your ZIP code yet?”
“Um, er -“
I know she wants to keep it short because she’s calling from the Central Stranded Time Zone. Her abrupt goodbye is typical, vintage Montana: “Hint for the month, Lance, stop being you. Send that dish A-SAP. Sap.”
“Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind,” I remind her softly, far too late.
I take stock of our conversation. I’d got in 13 syllables, three commas, two sub-vocalizations, zero complete sentences, and no clauses. Aside from her P.O. Box, I don’t know where Montana’s at anymore. But I’d have to ride to Fargo and turn around quick to get on her good side. Two glorious, unforgettable weeks of matrimony, during which time my goal had devolved from comprehension to getting out with a whole skin.
I sit. Make a mental note to pack up Aunt Alice’s casserole dish. Okay, I think, the cops want me to stay in tonight. Don’t need my help. Well. How can I irritate Bad People while chained to my beat-up oak desk?
A shuffling in the corridor. I hark my ears and wait. The figure that appears is from about 100 years ago: bearded, wearing a weathered brown felt hat, scarred leather vest over a shirt of unknown color, a once-red kerchief, dark-stained chaps, rough-out boots. Except for the guy’s expression, I coulda been lookin’ in a mirror. His face has a haunted look, on the ragged fringe of hope. You see that too much these days.
“Mr. Sidesaddle,” the guy says. It’s not a question.
I nod, gesturing at my beat-up guest chair. “Sit,” I say. We sit.
“Muh friends say you’re a great detective, say you find things for people.”
I clamp down on my urge to agree with him and magnanimously pontificate. My sidekick powers tell me this guy wants something. Something important. But I know right off it’s going to be hard for me to find.
The dude is nodding. “They say you have the gift,” says he.
Well of course the guy is right, tied up with a lovely bow it is, but instinct for a change keeps the zip on my lip.
“Need ta get hooked up,” says the stranger. “They say ya sometimes need help.”
I get it. A job. I give him an A for approach. At least he buttered me up first, a good trait in any employee. But what to say?
“Well,” says I, “most of us can use a little help, some of the time. What kinda help were you thinkin’?”
Fella muses a bit, then says straight out, “Solvin’, figurin’, cogitatin’ clues.”
Hmmm. Here’s a guy about whom I know nada, not asking to sweep the floor, but suggesting he’s ready to park right atop my own little food chain. For an instant, I think if he can keep Montana off my neck, then he can have my job, my office, the works. Except for Ol’ Paint, my trusty truck.
But our serene rapport is curtailed by frantic sirens that fill the night, distant, drawing swiftly closer. We step into the corridor and peer out the dark window. A rosy glow paints the sky above the Hysterical District. My studies of cause and defect are giving me an instant twitch to head down the stairs, but I remember I’m grounded. Looking out as flashing reds dash noisily through the darkened streets of our fair little burg, I turn to the guy.
“Okay. I get your drift. There’s not a lot of moolah in this racket, but sometimes I can use a good paid hand.” I notice his face lights up a notch when I hit the word paid. There are a couple of things I do need, like…
“Like tonight. Amble on over to the noise smoke and confusion there, come back and tell me what you see. They’re gonna wanna know what started the fire. Get the plate number of a big black crew cab if you see one. Dark windows, two guys. Ditto for a green Chevy pickup. This here’s on account. I’ll be here till sunup.”
I fish out a twenty and hand it to him folded up small. He nods, says seeyalaterthanks, and heads on down the hall.
“Oh yeah,” I call after him. “Take the plastic trash bucket out of the Men’s and give that little roan some water, if she’s still there.”
The guy’s hat brim dips and he continues on. From where I sit back in my office I can hear the bucket filling and his bootheels fade down to silence as he hits the street. Carramba. Never got his name. No matter. If he comes back he has a job. Sort of. If he doesn’t then at least he took a handout with a scrap of dignity.
I sit there and again I’m thinking of Montana, our conversation, all her stuff stowed neatly in my singlewide. Mattra fakt, all my stuff, the stuff she didn’t choose to want to look at, is in the tin shed out back. Note to self: rearrange castle, in a manor of speaking. I think, maybe I should just ship it all to her. Then I think twice: it would take durn near two years’ wages to do that. I think thrice: maybe I should just start a fire…
Then I notice that’s twice in under a minute I thought about running away from my problems. What am I really going to do?
Fire. Burning my humble abode and all her stuff would indeed get me somewhat off the hook, but the word turns my thoughts to the blaze a few blocks yonder. That’s when my sidekick powers wake up from their nap and deliver me a single word: friction. Okay, it dawns on me, if I was thinkin’ that, someone else was thinkin’ that. The owner. So that’s solved, but how to pin it on the owner when I’m grounded for being too helpful?
Things are just starting to gel when my shiny new assistant shows up. He’s carrying two paper cups of what smells like hot coffee.
“Where’d you get java? All the barista bars close up before six.”
“Fire Department had their pot on. Built right into the side of the truck.”
I nod and sip. My assistant goes on.
“Won’t believe this, but that little hoss got a parking ticket. She was thirsty all right. I’m takin’ her another bucket in a minute. But first here’s what I saw over there. Big place, old-timer, nice one, too bad. Completely done for. Saw both of yer trucks, here’s the tags.”
He lays down a slip of paper with two license numbers written in a neat, solid hand. Reaching into his vest pocket, he thunks a small object onto my desktop. Cell phone.
“Feller pushin’ me outta the way, one of the fellers from the black rig. That’s his. Strayed somehow into my hand. Thought it might be something you can use.”
He watches real quiet while I fire the thing up and page through the incoming and outgoing call history. There’s one number right away catches my eye, phoned several times over the last couple weeks, also at 6:10 p.m. this very evening. The number echoes around in the vault of my lock-box memory, and hooks up with a name: Shady Grady. Preskitt’s nefarious all-purpose hoodlum. Shinola! I’d been trying to pin something on that clown for a couple years… Then I think there’s another baggage I’m about to get rid of.
“Okay, you did good. Feel like taking on another job?”
Guy sips his coffee and nods.
“By the way,” I say, “I didn’t get your name.”
I take out a piece of my letterhead and start sketching a map that will get him to my place. All of a sudden, this old tune starts playing, durned if it doesn’t sound like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans singing, “Happy Trails to Yoooo.”
I look at my radio. Nope, still has the ball game on. I look at Lucas, and he ain’t singing, we’re just looking at each other kinda blank. Then our eyes drop to the cell phone on my desk. Gol durn thing is playin’ like a juke box. On a hunch, I answer it.
“Yup.” I turn up the ball game nice and loud, hoping the noise will disguise my golden voice.
Guy comes on the other end, a growl I recognize.
“Things done. I’m ready for my end. Where and when?”
I have to think a bit. “Little gazebo in the Plaza, around midnight,” I mumble, hoping it sounds reasonable
“Ga-zee-bo – Whut’s that?”
“Little round bandstand. Across from the Palace.”
“Midnight,” the voice says, then silence.
Shady Grady. I’m sure it’s him. I fold the phone up and Lucas and I just look at each other. He’s got a smirk on, in a minute we’re just kinda grinning at each other.
I turn my attention back to my sketched map. “Okay, what I need is you head out to Yakking Boulders Ranch – my spread – and take out anything that looks like a woman bought it. Everything. Chafing dishes, casseroles, punch sets, the works. There’s some empty boxes in the shed. Box it up and sit it on the porch. We’ll load up when I get there around daybreak. Then you’ll find a way to sell it and we’ll split the cash.” I have about a week to come up with something to tell Montana, but the way the dude’s eyebrows go up says ‘attaboy’ nice and strong.
He studies my hastily-drawn map. I hear him softly mutter something about a ‘durn long walk.’ Right, how stupid of me. Hmmm. I don’t want to send him off in Ol’ Paint, I’d have no ride myself. Then I get an idea.
I walk downstairs and into the night, keeping my eyes peeled for any cops about. An orange moon hangs in a stratum of gray smoke in the trees around the Plaza, the cool air sniffs of burnt wood. Only a few cars stand silent along the Row. The little roan is still hitched up, she’s looking across at Courthouse Plaza. Sure enough there’s a parking ticket stuck in her bridle. She looks lonesome, probably hungry, probably about to get towed. The rosy glow has just about faded from the winter sky. I turn around to look for Lucas, he’s just coming along with the water.
The horse sticks her nose in and slurps noisily. I watch Lucas for a minute, holding the bucket for the horse.
“You ride?” I ask. He doesn’t look up, only nods. The answer comes to me just as plain as if I’d heard it a thousand times. I gesture at my map in his fist.
“Use the horse, Luke.”
Lucas nods, hands me the empty bucket. He unhitches the reins and leads the roan into the street. He checks the cinch, then swings up into the saddle. With a nod he’s off. The clip-clop of hooves seems an echo from earlier times as the familiar silhouette of horse and rider fades up Montezuma along the darkened street front. I’m about to shout after him, ‘stay away from the dark side,’ but the street’s in full moonlight so I shut up.
Back at my desk I finger the little cell phone, flipping through the calls. Several calls to and from Grady over the last weeks. Now I know. It’s time to employ my studies of cause and defect. First I’m going to cause, then I’m going to defect – right out of here and over the hill.
Taking the crisp white card from my vest, I pick up my desk phone.
“Nabster,” the guy answers. Lots of noise in the background, engines and the shouts of men.
“Detective Nabster, this is Sidesaddle.”
“I hope you haven’t left your office, Slapsaddle?”
But I cut him off. “You on Mt. Vernon?”
“Yah. What of it?”
“I know what started your fire. And I think I know who.”
There is a pause. “I’m listening.”
“Friction? You klutz, this was arson.”
“Right you are, Detective. Friction. In this case it’s the mortgage rubbing up against the insurance policy. And I think I know how to find your bad boy.” I tell the nice officer I scheduled him a midnight rendezvous in the gazebo. “If you want more, look under that bench in front of Annalina’s for a little present.”
“Yeah. And one more thing.”
“Can I leave now?”
I lock up and head down to the street. In front of the restaurant, I fold up the cell phone, slip in Luke’s note with the license numbers, and stash it beneath the sidewalk bench. I head around the block toward Preskitt’s fab new parking structure, thinking about the night, Montana, the fire – everything. Alone as usual in the dark, I feel the warm glow of satisfaction, the sense of lending a helping hand, the humble pride of the unsung hero. The devious plan hadn’t been foiled, exactly, but the bad boys will have to go away for a while. Happy Trails to Yoooo. Preskitt, town that I love, will pass another night in restful slumber.
The twin pipes of Ol’ Paint burble contentedly as I cruise the quiet streets of my little town, up Montezuma and around the big bend, heading for Yakking Boulders Ranch, just beyond the ridge.
A warmish September afternoon on Courthouse Plaza lingers on towards sundown. But while work is ending for most honest Preskitt folks, my job as defender of the peace is just beginning. Yah, you know me –
Without warning, the desk telephone rings in my office in this fleabag hotel overlooking Whiskey Row. On a hunch, I pick it up. Could be something big.
“Lance Sidesaddle, private detective,” I quip.
The feminine voice on the other end is faint, dusky, mysterious, breathy, silky, alluring, wraithlike. And so on.
She has me there. Honesty is the best policy. I have no choice. “Yes.”
“You should get some air, go outside. See the parade.”
I begin to formulate a quizzical reply but the receiver clicks and the line goes dead. As dead as a doornail. Following the example of countless old private eye flicks, I twiddle the cradle a few times, shouting, “Hello, Operator, I’ve been cut off!” It doesn’t work this time either. But I do get this weird cold shiver up my neck.
But no matter. Parade. The secretive dusky alluring and so forth feminine voice had mentioned a parade. Outside. Hmmm. Could mean in the street. On a hunch, I amble downstairs and out onto Preskitt’s fabled Whiskey Row.
The late afternoon sidewalk crowds are thick, lining both sides of Montezuma Street. I jostle my way through the happy throng to a good spot. A brass band is strutting by, in full uniforms with high plumed hats, bass drum deeply hinting at the beat of a Sousa march. The band is followed by a phalanx of cowpokes on high-stepping horses under a broad banner: Ghost Riders in the Sky. Following them, an authentic 1800s stagecoach, eight massive Clydesdales driven by a hard-bitten leathery cowpoke. On the seat beside him sits a gorgeous blonde in a white bonnet, drop curls and blue gingham, just folding up a tiny cell phone. She looks at me, all smiles, then goes on waving to the crowd. Maybe it’s the packed bodies and the heat, but as the coach turns a corner, I can swear I see daylight under the big spoked wheels.
I shake it off. I’ve missed most of the parade – all that remains is a line of classic 1920s cars leaning on their oooh-gah horns, a few dispirited Boy Scouts following up with pooper-scoopers, and it’s over. The happy crowd begins to disperse, milling about, heading back into the shops, restaurants, and refined drinking establishments.
That mysterious ghostly alluring voice. Why had someone wanted me to see the parade? Obvious, really. My 80-hour workweeks as defender of the populace are legendary. Likely it was a civic-minded Preskitt citizen, concerned for my social cultivation. With a warm fuzzy glow all over, I head back inside and up the stairs.
I know something is wrong the moment I approach my office in the silent corridor – smells like a hot brandin’ iron. Vague rustlings from behind the door, through the clouded glass abstract shapes move. In the distance, a horse neighs nervously. I get an instant vision of three beefy men about to pound me senseless.
But this time I am ready. I reach into my mental lock-box of self-defense strategies and come out with a doozy?a surprise shoestring tackle as I burst through the door, which will put these louts finally at my mercy.
Crouching silently, I slowly twist the doorknob until I feel the latch pull clear, then shove the door open with all my might and launch myself forward, low to the floor. Surprise is on my side.
It’s a midget. His decidedly un-midget-like fist is waiting, and I remain obligingly committed to my trajectory until my nose greets his fist with a polite howdy-do.
When I regain consciousness, I find myself lying in the strewn debris of my useful crime-solving trivia. Why would someone toss my office? Rubbing my tenderized and flattened schnozz, I wonder aloud how a midget can have a fist as hard as an anvil.
“How?” echo the walls.
That burning odor – smells like Ol’ Paint’s clutch on my fave shortcut over Granite Mountain. It wasn’t anything like the sage and rare cedar barks I sometimes burn during my incantations. But looking at my topsy-turvy digs, a strange cold chill slithers up my spine.
When I finally set my desk and chair upright, I dig my answering machine from a haphazard pile of vintage Mad magazines. The alert light beckons balefully. The single message is brief, to the point, and ominous. I recognize the voice at once, one of my clients for telephone dating advice.
“Lance, I won’t be able to continue our sessions, enjoyable as they have been. No, I’ve decided to end it all. I did meet a wonderful lady, thanks to you, but she’s moving on. It’s just not worth the struggle to start again. Goodbye, you bonehead. By the time you hear this I’ll be extinct. But I’ll be in a better place, wearing a toe tag.”
The message fades away into spooky silence.
I sit and stew awhile. Mighty Mike, owner of that very voice, is one of my Lonely Hearts telephone clients. Yah, it’s a sideline, but over the years I’ve helped a few folks find a little romance in this crazy world. A little hoss sense, a few Indian spells, some burning herbs and hard-to-find rare barks. Like my other lovelorn clients, I’ve never met Mighty Mike, it’s all confidential. But he followed my advice, seemed to be getting results, and always sent his check. He had been upbeat the last few times we’d talked?but now this. And it’s up to me to stop him from doing something foolish!
What to do? Mighty Mike’s morbid message meant moribund mortality. But there are some clues. Toe tag! In a better place wearing a toe tag. What can that mean? Then I notice the crisp white card stapled to my leather vest.
You Stab ‘em, We Slab ‘em.
Curious. Piquant. Then the realization creeps up on me like rosy-fingered dawn over Thumb Butte?maybe I should check out the City Morgue. Before leaving, I look around for anything hot, but nothing can explain the burnt smell that still lingers in the heavy air.
Dark has fallen when my boots hit the stained but fabled sidewalk of Whiskey Row. The air is fresh with evening. Gone are the parade crowds, the languid shoppers from hither and yon. The few folks still about walk purposefully, quickly, like they’re going somewhere in a hurry.
I duck through the alley to Preskitt’s fab new parking structure on McCormick and fire up Ol’ Paint. Soon I’m ghosting through the darkened streets as quietly as the rusted-out mufflers will allow. The morgue is housed in a shadowy old stone edifice on a dead-end street. Ha! The macabre jocularity of these city planners! I’ve been here before, on the Halloween tour, but I’d never broken in. It’s easy enough. Who the heck wants to get into a morgue?
The place is deserted, quiet, dark, foreboding, with a frisson of spooky as hell. I move through the shadowy corridors by instinct, without a sound, until I find myself in a silent, dimly-lit room. That dimly-lit room. Sheet-shrouded shadowy shapes slumber silently. I walk among the quiet tables, viewing the plain white identification tags attached to protruding toes, inwardly paying my respects to the dear departed.
Hmmm. This guy. I’d heard of him. There’ll be many a dry eye now he’s gone. Oh, and this one donated his body to science. I’m sure his brain alone was worth every last penny. This one! Holy smoke, I’d of cried at his funeral – he owes me twenty bucks. Or was it owed? Then I come to something out of the ordinary, a horse of another color, something else again.
DO NOT REMOVE THIS TAG.
My finger brushes the toe. Curious – it feels a lot like wood. In fact, so does the foot. Not only that, the ankle looks and feels like a broomstick. On a hunch, I look at the other one. Another broomstick. I step to the head of the covered form and gingerly raise the shroud.
It’s the midget.
His eyes are open, looking straight at me in the dimness. When he speaks, the voice is instantly familiar.
“Took you long enough. Howdy, Lance, I’m Mike DuPre.”
Mighty Mike, my Lonely Hearts client. We shake hands solemnly. I need a moment to think. I’d been giving telephone dating advice to a midget. Inwardly, I vowed to treat my client and this situation with utmost dignity.
“You sounded bigger on the phone. But what are you doing here?”
“The girl on the stagecoach, you saw her, right?”
“Blue gingham. Blonde. Sure.”
“That’s Evelyn, my girlfriend. Sort of. She’ll be here in a minute.”
“Why sort of? And why did you beat me up?”
“Beat you up? You mashed your face into my fist. Still smarts.”
Now I’m getting angry. “There is no gol-durn difference. And you shouldn’t have been rooting around in my private office.”
“When I want your opinion on manners I’ll beat it out of you. I was trying to erase my message. Wanted to talk to you before we came here. Was digging through the rubble to find your machine. You got there too soon. Then you were out cold, so the City Morgue card was simpler.”
“Rubble! Now wait a minute. My office is neat as a pin. Usually. Once in a while.”
“Not when I got there. Thought that was how you liked it. What was that burning smell?”
I shake my head. “But Evelyn, does she work here?”
“No! That’s just it. Ever since you set us up, this is the only place she’ll see me.”
I try to keep an open mind?this could be the latest thing in trendy night spots. “You mean you’ve been dating at the morgue?”
“You worked that spell, remember? While I was on the phone last time. That very night I got a call. From her. We talked and talked. It seemed like we’d known each other forever. So I met her that night. Here. We’ve been seeing each other ever since. But something is weird. She’s saying she has to go away now.”
Mighty Mike’s narrative is cut off by the sound of approaching bootheels in the empty corridor outside.
“Hsst! She’s here.”
“I’ll just leave you two lovebirds to your – ”
“No, you dolt, you gotta stay! You gotta keep her from leaving.”
“Sorry, loverboy. That part’s up to you. See ya.”
“You’re a good guy, Lance, but if you were any dumber, I’d have to water you twice a week. There was something wrong with your spell! You have to fix it.”
But we’ve used up our allotted time arguing. The sound of bootheels is louder now, right in the room with us. But the door hasn’t opened! Mike’s head is up, tracking the sound. So am I. But there’s one problem. Although the ladylike clump-clump of boots moves closer among the dear departed, there is nothing to see. A cold breeze catches my cheek, raising gooseflesh and a sudden sense of anxiety. The footsteps stop, the echoes die away.
Just when I’m thinking the hairs on the back of my neck can’t go any higher, up they go another notch. A swirling of mist in the dimness, vague at first, then slowly gaining clarity, until –
Blond and radiant, wearing the same white bonnet and blue gingham farm dress she’d worn for the parade, Mike Dupre’s girlfriend Evelyn stands on the other side of the gurney, smiling at both of us.
“Mr. Sidesaddle, I’m Evelyn Clark.”
She extends an elegant hand. My eyes go way wide. My own hand, numb like a sleepwalker, reaches out. I expect to touch no more than a cool puff of air, but the hand I hold is real, solid. It’s also warm and ladylike.
“Lance Sidesaddle,” I manage to get out. “Private detective.”
Mikey-boy, sitting up on the gurney, is looking from one of us to the other with an incredulous expression.
“You mean you can see her?”
“Of course he can see me, sweets.” She gives Mikey’s cheek a soulful smooch.
I begin to regain a modicum of composure. “Now somebody start talking. From the beginning.”
Mikey-boy starts to say something, but Evelyn takes his hand, smiling dreamily at him.
“Please, Michael. Allow me.”
Mighty Mike, gazing into her eyes, only nods dumbly. His expression is dopey-dreamy too. They’re obviously stuck on each other. Evelyn continues.
“Mr. Sidesaddle, when Michael came to you about his dating emergency, as he called it – ”
“I wanted to meet someone – someone very nice,” Mikey-boy gets in.
“Precisely, sweetheart. Anyway, when you began helping Michael, you used a variety of techniques – confidence-building exercises, verbal approaches, you call them pick-up lines, I believe. You also used a number of ancient chants. One in particular, am I right?”
I have to think about that. True, I do draw from an extensive bag-o-tricks when talking to my Lonely Hearts clients. And she’s right – I have one old book of Indian spells. They’re mostly about the weather, good harvests, et cetera. But there is one, one in particular –
“Alright. There is one incantation. I prefer to call it a suggestion. To the spirits. It’s used when a mother is looking for her child, when a woman wants to have a baby, when lovers want to be together. Using it to help Mike here find his soul mate – that seemed to be a fair application of the, er, suggestion.”
Her intelligent eyes dance with the idea. “I see. So might you have taken this spell?”
“This suggestion – beyond its own limits?” Unlike Mighty Mike, Evelyn is too refined to say I’d screwed it up royally.
I look at Mikey-boy, feeling a little blank. “I dunno. Coulda. Can’t be sure.”
“Mr. Sidesaddle, there is much you don’t know. Michael here almost understands it, though I’ve told him very little. Here’s what I think happened. Back in the days when Prescott was a bustling mining town and the territorial capital, Whiskey Row was mostly saloons. Many of the saloons had rooms up above, some used for – ahem – nefarious purposes.”
She looks down at her tightly clasped hands, then goes on.
“One of the rooms above Whiskey Row was occupied by a fortune teller, a card reader. She was my auntie June. Although the fire of 1900 consumed that building and most of Whiskey Row, the building standing there today is quite similar in layout. Her room was in precisely the same location as your office, Mr. Sidesaddle.”
Evelyn pauses to let this sink in. My head is reeling. Mikey-boy is getting better at his dumbfounded look. My sidekick powers awake from their slumbers, perform a few rapid hexadecimal calculations, and toss me a doozy.
“So you’re from – ” I begin.
“The past, Mr. Sidesaddle?” Her smile is angelic. “That’s not quite the concept, but it will suffice. My family occupied a house on Mt. Vernon street in 1905. The year I died.”
“Died!” yelps Mighty Mike. “In 1905?” He’s clearly distraught. Here he’d found a lovely, intelligent woman, the love of his life, but she had died many years before he was born.
Thanks to me, Yours Truly, the Village Idiot.
Evelyn takes Mikey-boy’s hands in both of hers. Gazing at him tenderly, she says, “I don’t belong here, Michael. Meeting you has been the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me. But I have to go back.”
There’s more like that. I try to make myself invisible while she and Mikey-boy talk, grappling with the inevitable. The facts are incontrovertable. In fact, the day I worked my gol-durn incantation was 100 years to the hour after Evelyn died. Mike’s in love with an angel, in more ways than one. Many fervent hugs and tender smooches later, they turn to me. Their faces share a look of worn resignation. And heavy disappointment. They’re a perfect match, a century apart.
“Can you – ” Evelyn begins.
“Fix it, you plantbrain?” Mikey finishes for her. She shushes him but they both eyeball me piercingly.
I look from one to the other with a heart of lead. Theoretically it’s possible to reverse any spell, any suggestion. But that’s assuming I’d performed the steps correctly in the first place. Masking any inner self-doubt, I say to them, “I have to do this at my office. You have until sunup.”
As the silent edifice fades away in Ol’ Paint’s mirrors, I get it. It was while performing the original incantation that I’d done something wrong. I know what it is, and I feel like a fool. A shortcut. A stupid substitution because I’d been missing a certain hard-to-find bark. I’d thought that intention alone would impress the spirits, but now, I can almost see their laughing faces swirling about the truck. Parked now on the dark and deserted Whiskey Row, I reach under Ol Paint’s seat for the carefully-wrapped package, and make my way upstairs.
With all that’s happened this night, I don’t fully register that my office is now, amazingly, neat as a pin. I unwrap the old book with its cracked leather cover, and open it to the page. I begin reading the old dialect aloud, hoping I have the pronunciations close to right. In a large brass ashtray I build a small blaze of sage and heather, then at the last throw in a few shavings of rare cedar bark, shouting out the final words of the chant with a gusto I hope is convincing. The flame leaps brightly, then dies away to black ash and a thin trail of gray smoke.
Now there is nothing to do except wait. But I feel deep down that it worked. Mighty Mike will be back, alone, to express his dissatisfaction, and I’ll just have to put up with it. I know now what I’d done wrong. This time, I’d done the spell correctly, but before – I’d been taking a chants on love.
As my bootheels fade into the swirling mist of Courthouse Plaza, I make a promise to myself. If I ever, ever perform another spell, I sure won’t be using any plastic wood.
Sundown. End of a hot July day in the high desert. But while work is over for most honest Preskitt folks, my job as defender of the peace is just beginning. Yah, you know me-Lance Sidesaddle, private detective.
So I’m here in my office in this fleabag hotel overlooking Whiskey Row. Once again, the air conditioner’s on the blink. Feet on the desk, toes of my snakeskin boots point accusingly at the motionless ceiling fan. My dark-stained chaps hang limply in the oppressive heat.
The door knocks. A blurry form visible through the clouded glass.
I summon my most professional tone to call out, “Tain’t locked.”
Through the door waltzes this dame, this chick, this doll, this babe. All decked out in a snappy blue suit. Her hips have the smooth curves of a peach in brandy sauce. I slowly push my Shady Brady higher up my noggin, the better to see her with.
The brim of her matching hat brushes the doorframe on both sides. She’ll have to be careful in a high wind. But her blue suit fades to a pale shadow when I get a load of those eyes. Wowie-zow. One deep, soulful look into those sparkling blue orbs and a guy could hear wedding bells. I plug my ears, sparing her but the slightest glance.
“How do you do, Mr. Sidesaddle? My name is Mrs. Delbert Four-Woody The Third. I would like to employ you to solve a-um, er problem. With my husband. He’s been acting strangely.”
So. A society dame. Last thing I need. Somehow these cases always lead to a guy with a golf cap in a Mercedes convertible.
“Just throw the trash offa that chair,” I drawl with a casual gesture. But my detective senses are alert and racing wildly. The way she says um er problem tells me this is one a them cases. The kind you hafta solve without talking about. Yeah, them. As in with decorum, breeding, civility, dignity, respectability, etiquette, tact, punctilio-.
She parks her demure derriere primly in my beat-up guest chair but leaves the motor running. I know then she’s in a rush. As she talks about the um er problem I watch her closely for clues. But I also become aware of something else-that angelic face is calling up long-forgotten sensations. You know. Feelings. Yah, those. The kind you get when you whitewash your girlfriend’s name on a bridge abutment. I listen with professional aplomb.
“Mind if I light up?” she asks with a soft smile.
Surreptitiously, I switch on my No Smoking sign. “Naw,” I say graciously. In the rosy neon glow she pulls a white matchbook from her purse.
“Want one?” She holds the deck toward me.
I shake my head. “Swore I was gonna start this year, but ain’t yet got around to it.”
“This place could use a woman’s touch,” she remarks, looking around at my extensive collection of useful crime-solving trivia. Is she stalling, changing the subject from embarrassment? Or is she hinting at something deeper, more lasting? I smooth my moustache and cooly wait her out.
“Here,” she breathes seductively, handing me a crisp white card. My heart picks up the beat like hooves rounding the clubhouse turn at Yavapai Downs. Her private number, no doubt. I knew it. She’s making a pass. And she ain’t been in my office sixty seconds. I eyeball the card.
Alice’s Cleaning Service
“My cleaning lady,” she explains with a poignant smile. “Help you straighten this place up.”
To cover my disappointment, I stick the card in my shirt pocket. For her, I’d gladly toss half my stuff in the back of Ol’ Paint and haul it off to the dump. Yeah, rhymes with chump. But by then I know her type. She’s always had everything-the looks, the dough, the men to walk on. Bored. Jaded. Blasé. Achingly lonely deep inside, soothing her ego with thrill after reckless thrill.
“May I borrow your phone?” At my curt nod she picks up the antique receiver from my desk and speaks into it softly. “You know the address, you know the flavor,” she says cryptically, and hangs up.
“So you’ll follow him,” she turns to me hopefully, “find out about my-”
“Um er problem,” I supply with nonchalant punctilio.
“Yes,” she whispers gratefully, looking down at the soft feminine hands clasped tightly in her lap. After breathy but professional goodbyes she is gone, leaving only a fleeting waft of exotic perfume.
Tail her husband, she had said. But this is the technology age, and Lance Sidesaddle is nothing if not modern. My Shady Brady and stained chaps, the hand-tooled snakeskin boots with one spur missing, the green print kerchief dotted with soup du jour-my all-purpose formal wear, disguise, and pajamas-are merely a diversion. Add to this a miniature microphone in my left nostril, totally undetectable, and I am ready.
Where to start? I glance at the matchbook the dame left on my desk. Glistening white, with Roxy and a phone number written in a feminine hand. On a hunch, I dial it.
“Roxy’s Pizza,” says a rough voice at the other end. Interesting, but I’m not that hungry. I pocket the matchbook.
I walk downstairs and out onto Whiskey Row. The air is cooler but a little sticky from the afternoon monsoon. Evening shadows ooze among the trees of Courthouse Plaza like warm caramel. Night falls with a soft thump. The shops are closed and dark, only the bars and restaurants still show lights and laughter. Sitting on that iron bench outside Annalina’s, I muse over the matchbook cover in the feeble streetlight-no doubt it holds some valuable clue.
I am jerked from my crime-solving reverie by sudden raucous laughter and the metallic clunk of coins into the metal ashtray beside me. I look up alertly as two young guys walk by toting a pizza carton.
“Free cowboy hats on North Cortez,” one says leeringly. His partner howls with evil merriment as they make their way down the Row.
Free cowboy hats. Hmmm. When I have time I’ll check that out. I peer into the metal bucket. Two quarters and a dime. But there’s also a piece of pocket lint and a matchbook. Hmmm. White and shiny. Kinda like the one my client left behind, only this one has oddball numbers written on it. 33-45-78. Strange, looks like her handwriting too.
I’m running that curious string of numbers through my lock-box data bank when I spot him. That guy. The type I knew would be mixed up in this from the first. Just up the street hopping out of a gold Mercedes ragtop. The man in the golf cap. Four-Woody III. Yah, him. I try to look innocuous, but from the corner of my eye I see he’s studying me as he approaches. He hesitates. Durn-hope he ain’t seen through my disguise. He drops a few coins in the metal ashtray at my elbow, walks down Montezuma and hangs a left on Gurley.
Whew, that was close. But I’m up $1.45 for the night, and the night is young. I turn the corner on foot as quickly as I can without seeming out of character. A rustler’s moon hangs ominously over Thumb Butte. Golf Cap is just ahead, making his way through swarms of everybodys calling Preskitt their hometown. As I pass the alley entrance behind the hotel I hear voices and evil laughter. Familiar evil laughter. Three men step from the inky blackness, blocking my path. From somewhere, a horse neighs nervously.
“Hey, it’s the twerp with the microphone in his nose.” Sneering giggles accompany this utterance as the three surround me in the doleful shadows.
I throw out the line I know will put them off balance, give me an edge, a leg up, an unfair advantage. “It’s your party, you light the candles.”
But they are at me like ants on a glazed picnic ham. I see a pizza box coming toward me. These are no ordinary muggers. Lying on my back while they pummel me senseless, I view with alarm a dark squarish shape plummeting from the velvet starry night high above.
“Look out,” I yell, rolling out of the way. My pummelers leap aside in a flurry of curses not suitable for a family publication. With a resounding whump, the massive object shakes the ground scant inches from my noggin.
When I regain consciousness, my assailants have fled and I’m once again alone in the dark. I sit up and look at the cubical mass sunk cornerwise into the warm asphalt. Dark green with gold trim. A lever and combination lock glint in the passing headlights. A safe. How odd. I have more important things to pursue at the moment, but who would be moving a safe at this hour? On a hunch, I look in the pizza box. Three pieces, still warm. I won’t be leaving those behind.
Voices just outside the alley. My keen detective instincts tell me I’m in luck. It’s Golf Cap talking to a blonde woman in a big white Lexus. He gets in beside her and they drive off, luckily for me toward where I’d parked Ol’ Paint. Laughing off the bruises and contusions, I’m able to limp through the Friday night crowds to my trusty steed and pull out right on her bumper. Of her car. They’ll never shake me now.
Oddly, as soon as I follow them south on Mt. Vernon, the shiny sedan somehow grows smaller in the distance and vanishes around the first curve. Gol durn! The blonde musta hit the gas. I hunt around for 15 minutes to a quarter of an hour, then park my rig on a quiet side street. Two-tone, primer red and primer gray, Ol’ Paint is the perfect camouflage for surveillance day or night. Highly modern for a ’77, she-or he-has a custom 8-track stereo, with a metal speaker in each window reminiscent of Senator Drive-in days.
Deep in thought, I open the pizza box.
Jackpot. Three slightly-mussed pieces of large with extra cheese. Yum. While I nibble at one I peruse the receipt. Hmmm. Anchovies, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, feta cheese. Not bad. Chewy though-sometimes instant gratification takes too gol durn long. But there, at the bottom of the receipt, an address on City Lights drive.
I drop Ol’ Paint into gear, and before you can say Magnum P.I. 38 times in fluent Hopi I’m parked next door to a ritzy palazzo, on the wrong side of the street but so what this is urgent. The blonde’s car stands silent in the driveway. The fancy place is quiet, too quiet, a dark outline against the velvety desert night. There are some cars parked a ways up the street, but not a soul around. I try the door of the gal’s Lexus. Fortunately she hasn’t set the alarm. On the passenger seat is a note:
For your wife I suggest something long and flowing
Long and flowing. Hmmm. I begin to assemble the available clues. My lovely client’s obvious agitation, her husband acting strangely lately. Husband vanishing into night with blonde in fancy car, ending up at this place in the dark. Suddenly it all adds up. I immediately see to the bottom of their fiendish scheme. Something long and flowing-they’re going to toss my shiny new client in the Agua Fria!
Now I know enough to bust them but good. And somehow I have to alert the cops.
Car lights lance up the quiet street. I have just enough time to hunker down inside the Lexus when a low-slung sports job pulls into the driveway right behind. Even in the dark, I know. There’s no mistaking that hat! The broad-brimmed dress hat makes its way to the front door, my client wiggling along beneath it to keep up. I need to do something! In just seconds she’ll walk in on a steamy scene and get herself tossed in the drink. I’m just about to shout out when a squad car with flashing reds slashes to a halt right beside me. Two uniforms get out and advance menacingly.
“Thank goodness you’re in time,” I say, pointing at the house, at the woman ringing the doorbell on the darkened porch. I’m groping for the most precise and professional words that will sum up the situation. “Her husband is sending her to swim class.”
But my refined detective senses tell me they aren’t buying it. This time, their heaters point right at me. Gol durn! The blonde’s Lexus has a silent alarm.
“Your name Lance?”
“Not really,” I reply with jocularity, “I’m just testing it prior to shipment overseas.”
“Alright Widewaddle,” one of them says over the dark wicked barrel, “Just can it, we know your little game.”
“Sidesaddle,” I correct the nice officer. “Stop her! If she goes through that door she’ll be-”
At that instant the door opens, all the lights in the house come on, and a chorus of voices yells, “Surprise!” The door slams, cutting off the babble of happy party chitchat and reggae music. I turn to face the cops.
“Lissen-” I begin.
“Now you listen, Slap-saddle. Somebody tried to boost a safe out of the hotel tonight. You were seen leaving the scene. A call came from your office to a pizza joint-a coded signal to start the robbery. The pizza was delivered to this address. The pizza box is in your truck. And here you are with anchovies on yer breath.”
“Dum-da-dum-dum,” the other cop hums with a menacing smirk.
“I was going to mention that,” I say earnestly. “Somebody tried to drop a safe on me in that alley behind the hotel. Three men-”
“Add to that attempted grand theft auto,” the other cop interjects.
I’m still holding the piece of paper from the blonde’s car. The cop takes it and reads aloud, “Sherri’s Dress Shop, Scottsdale.” Durn, he’s looking at the wrong side.
Through the front window I see my client parading among the partygoers. She’s changed clothes, and now wears a floor-length chiffon gown. A nice look for her, but it doesn’t add up.
“Here,” I say, thinking quickly. “Her handwriting.” I hand over the two white matchbooks. The cop peruses the feminine penmanship:
“Roxy? 33 – 45 – 78?”
My sidekick powers wake briefly from their snooze to impart a quick news flash: Mrs. Delbert Four-Woody The Third is just the type to charm a safe combo out of lonely hotel managers anywhere.
“Say,” I drawl. “What if that wuz the combo to that safe?”
The cops exchange glances of stark disbelief. “That’s incredible. Did he just make a useful suggestion?”
“Call Dispatch,” the other replies with resignation, “check it out.”
My head’s reeling. This all points to a very bad girl indeed. Tragic-all the looks, prestige and money she could want, yet she’s running a safecracking operation. Pluswhich the irony-her husband’s throwing her a surprise party and she thinks he’s up to something fishy!
In minutes it’s all over. Mrs. Four-Woody The Third, attired smartly for the occasion in a long flowing gown with matching handcuffs, disappears into the back of a police cruiser. She has enough time to toss a vicious barb my way.
“Here’s booking at you, kid,” I reply curtly.
I don’t mind if she’s a little peeved with me. If you can’t annoy bad guys, there’s little point to being a defender of the peace. The dish thought she had a clean sneak but ole Lance blew her house down, dropped the dime, chilled her caper. She won’t fry, but she’ll have plenty of time to cool off.
Oddly, I find myself thinking of fish and chips with a cold beer.
Can’t help but wonder though, why it is. Every time I meet someone I could really go for, she’s just about to be arrested.
As I walk tiredly back to Ol’ Paint, a note on the windshield flaps in the fitful night breeze. Most likely a thank-you from the cops for busting her little scheme wide open. They’re good ole boys, but they have a few issues about accepting help. Well, it’s a love note alright, but it involves a chat with the nice judge downtown. Parking on the wrong side of the street. Indeed. Resolutely I shoulder my burden-just one more lesson in humility.
Alone again in the dark, I nonetheless feel the warm glow of satisfaction, the sense of lending a helping hand, the humble pride of the unsung hero. The girl is gone, but her devious plan has been foiled. Preskitt, the town I love, will pass another night in peaceful slumber. It’s not that late. Maybe I’ve got time to check out those free cowboy hats.
The twin pipes of Ol’ Paint burble contentedly as I ghost through the streets of my quiet town.
By Lance Sidesaddle
Sundown. End of another busy day on Whiskey Row. But while the day was ending for most honest Preskitt folks, my job as defender of the peace was just beginning. Yeah, you’ve heard about me.
Lance Sidesaddle, private detective.
As evening shadows stretched across the Plaza, I was having a double-wide vanilla latte with cinnamon in Saint Mike’s. My finely tuned hearing picked up furtive, whispered talk from three men at a nearby table. Something about a stage to the Valley. Ridiculous! There hadn’t been a stage run out of Preskitt for nigh unto 80 years. The three mugs caught me staring, and quickly left. Not so quick that I didn’t catch a few miniscule but telling details. One carried a stand-up bass. Another wore a single red boot and one dancing slipper. I filed these facts in my lock-box memory.
I stepped over to the table they had vacated, its surface slick with café mocha and a clutter of empty cups. There, written on a cappuccino-stained napkin, were strange cluelike symbols. It looked like a tic-tac-toe layout before the X’s and O’s were filled in. Just the words “Gurley,” “Montezuma,” and “stage.” That word again. Symbolic, piquant even, harking back to Preskitt’s storied past. But what could it mean? Then it came to me with the force of a stampede: this was code! My unerring detective sense was ringing like the firehouse alarm. These guys were up to no good. I marched up the Row for a chat with my friend Dick.
Dick tended bar at the Jersey Lilly, heard all the talk, the rumors. I puffed up the stairs (they really should get rid of those). The room was crowded and the music was fast. I squeezed in at the bar beside the old county doctor. Doc had just requested his usual, an almond daquiri. He took his first sip and frowned. He waved Dick over.
“Is this an almond daquiri, Dick?”
“Um, no… it’s a hickory daquiri, Doc.”
Finally I got a chance to ask about what I’d heard, about who would be interested in a stagecoach. I flashed the napkin and Dick nodded knowingly. But somehow tonight he’d lost his usual composure, and his answer was cryptic.
“Check out 129 ½,” he suggested furtively, not meeting my eyes.
“AM or FM?” I asked. But all I got was a quizzical look and a view of Dick’s broad back as he headed down the crowded bar. No matter, I would make quick work of this clue. At the top of the stairs I turned to survey the noisy room, looking for possible clues while calling no attention to myself. Next thing I knew I was tumbling in a heap to the stained sidewalk far below. Gol-durn! They really should get rid of them stairs.
I limped across the darkened Plaza and down Cortez to where I’d parked my truck, Ol’ Paint, conveniently in the center lane for a quick getaway. The cops knew my game and left me alone. I fiddled with that fool radio for musta been ten minutes but all I got was static. Where was that station? Finally I asked a couple cruising back to their car if they could help me find one twenty nine point five. They said I was parked right in front of it.
“Knew that,” I bantered. “Jes’ wanted to see if you wuz locals.” I missed the guy’s reply but his lady friend giggled all the way down the block.
Inside the joint it was all tables full of dressed-up folks, loud conversation amid the popping of corks, and aromas of chicken parmesan. From the jazz trio up front, the soothing sibilant syllables of a sexy songster. Wow. Her green satin gown was tight in all the right places. Long hair flowed over her bare shoulders with the luxuriant sheen of chicken gravy. Wanda Homefree, the night club singer. Her glistening red lips massaged the sultry lyrics of Love for Sale. I gave her a cursory glance.
The hostess blocked my path between the tables, enviously eying my authentic Western garb the shapeless straw hat and greasy chaps, the hand-tooled snakeskin boots with one spur missing, my green print kerchief flecked with this morning’s scrambled egg. She hinted rather broadly that the soup kitchen was in the next block. I didn’t argue. In this game ya can’t afford ta blow yer cover.
I’d just been smacked in the butt by the door when I saw him. That guy. The man with one red boot. Yeah, him. He was rolling a cigarette one-handed and giving me the old stinkeye. Over his shoulder I could see Ol’ Paint parked in the center lane. Somewhere in the distance a horse neighed nervously.
I ankled over to where he stood, reaching for the one-liner that would stop him in his tracks. Make him think. Catch him off guard. Give me the advantage. In the blink of an eye, I ground my shin into his boot, smashed my cheek into his fist, and before he knew it, I was gracefully laid out upon cold concrete.
He laughed at me. That was all. Laughed at me. It was then I knew that he was afraid of me.
When I regained consciousness the sidewalk was empty. Undeterred, I was limping up what I fondly called The Hill when this dainty hand snaked out of a darkened alleyway and yanked me in. She was only an outline in the dimness but she had an iron grip on my vest. I was just trying to recall the name of her expensive Parisian perfume when a loud clang made me jump into her arms. A beer keg had crashed to the pavement where I’d been the instant before. Rolling down the sidewalk with a metallic sound, it finally fetched up in the doorway of an antique shop, hissing suds. I made a note of the address in case I got thirsty later.
“Thanks,” I said as she put me down.
“Don’t mention it,” she said. “I like a man who can express his inner terror.”
That unmistakable voice. It was the singer. You know, the chirper, the tweeter, the warbler. Homefree. Yeah, her.
I dusted off my most dependable line. “What’s a swell kid like you doing in ”
“We don’t have time for that now,” she said quickly. “There’s something you need to know.”
In the darkness she took my hand in both of hers. For a few fleeting seconds in the life of this vast universe, a strange tickling sensation danced its way across my astonished palm. Her gentle touch withdrew, a last fragrant waft of her perfume, and she was gone. There was more I needed to ask her. Much more. A few fading clicks of her stiletto heels and I was once again alone in the dark. Alone, that is, except for my mission and the memory of her touch.
I stepped over the trail of foamy beer and headed toward the Courthouse, working my way along Gurley toward Montezuma, deep in thought. Just a minute those names! In the dim halo of a streetlight, I pulled out the napkin. It still had the tic-tac-toe thingy and the words Gurley and Montezuma. Could mean something. On a hunch, I turned the napkin over. My eyes widened in wild surmise as I read the list:
1 Do laundry
2 Meet at Italian place
3 Midnight stage
Jackpot. But there was something else. The streetlight shone on my open palm, revealing three words in a flowing, feminine script:
Follow the garlic
That strange tickling sensation Homefree had written a message on my hand! How did that fit in?
But no matter, I had the napkin. It was all there, notes on their fiendish plan. Gurley. Montezuma. On a hunch, I walked to the corner of Gurley and Montezuma and eased myself back into the shadows. I didn’t have to wait long. Three men walked up and stood waiting for the light to change. One carried a double bass. Another had garlic on his breath. Follow the garlic. The trio was nervously eyeing something across the street while attempting to look casual. I followed their gaze. At the curb outside Saint Mike’s stood a big van with a white trailer hooked up to it. I was still running the various clues through my lock-box mind: stage, the street names, garlic. But I saw nothing suspicious.
The light changed, I followed the three across the street. Something fell to the asphalt in the middle of the crosswalk. On a hunch, I picked it up. A recipe book, Fifty Italian Dishes. I walked up to the three men who stood talking quietly in the shadows beside the van. I held out the recipe book.
“Say, fellas, one of you dropped your ”
“Gwan, scram,” they said in three-part harmony.
The man with one red boot eyed me nervously. I was ready to forgive and forget but he wasn’t having any. Somewhere in the distance a horse neighed nervously.
At that moment an unmarked car screeched to a stop at the corner. Two plainclothes got out. Walking purposefully toward us, one of them shouted, “Halt! Stop right there! Chill, dude. Don’t move a muscle! Freeze!” And so on.
The three men looked frantically at one another, then sidled away quickly, ducking into the nearest alley. One whistled a merry tune. As they rounded the corner the guy with the double bass had a slim lead, but that wouldn’t last. The plainclothes walked right up to me.
“Alright Sidesaddle, the game is up.”
“Did you see those guys?” I exclaimed, pointing. “They were going to hold up the stage.”
The cops looked at each other, rolling their eyes. “Don’t change the subject, Sidesaddle, we’re onto your tricks.”
“Yeah,” the other said. He was looking down, writing something. A ripping sound and he shoved a piece of paper hard against my chest. On a hunch, I looked at it. A parking ticket. Say! Must be some kind of clue.
“Listen Sidesaddle, this is the last time we go easy. If you want to park your truck, do put it in a parking place. Once in a while. Humor us, okay? And one more thing.”
I affected my most nonchalant drawl when I rejoined, “Yeah, and what might that be?”
“There is no center lane on Cortez.”
I was just formulating a penetrating comeback when a crowd of folks flooded from the hotel lobby and shoved past me, climbing into the van. Some tossed bags into the trailer. That’s when it struck me. Even with no thanks from the cops for my sleuth work, I knew these honest folks could go peacefully about their innocent lives, unaware that they had been shielded from the forces of evil.
“Hi there,” a cool voice said in my ear. The dame. The girl singer. Homefree. Yeah, her. She placed a warm hand on my arm.
“I don’t know how you did it, but thanks for getting rid of them. I’m riding standby and that creep had a double bass.”
I offered her the book, Fifty Italian Dishes.
“You should keep that as a reward,” she said with a cute little smirk. “How can I ever thank you?”
I was just beginning to count the ways when she stepped past me and vanished inside the van. As they pulled away, I had one fleeting glimpse of that angelic face in the lights from the hotel. They headed east on Gurley and faded into the night, taillights flickering out of sight past the Hassayampa.
I was heading back to my truck when fate played a hand. In the distant streetlights, I saw a towtruck cross the intersection. Good ole boys, keeping our fair city neat and tidy, removing all the scofflaw junkers. But then I did a double take. Ol’ Paint was hooked up to the back, dragging its muffler on the pavement. The rig headed noisily off into the night. No matter, it saved me the walk. I turned back up Whiskey Row, heading for my office. The streets were deserted now, only a couple cars stood mute in the soft nighttime breezes.
The girl was gone, but the bad guys’ devious plan had been foiled. And I would never, ever wash away her cryptic message.
Alone again, I felt the warm glow of satisfaction, the feeling of lending a helping hand, the quiet pride of the unsung hero. Preskitt, the town I loved, would pass another night in peaceful dreams.
My single spur chimed a contented rhythm as I headed for my office in the quiet street.