Ruby Reds and Baby Blues

by Sean MacKendrick

 

Saturday morning, and the sun was shining brightly. There was hardly a cloud present to dampen the rays of light gushing from the robin-egg blue heavens down to the smooth tanned shoulders of the pedestrians making their way along the off-white Plasticrete walks twisting in gentle curves through the city. The sunlight glinted off the silvery multitude of spotless windows covering the skyscrapers along the streets where a few quiet, clean and efficient electric cars whispered along, coated with polish that further reflected the perfect sunlight until the whole city was awash with so much light you’d think God himself was beaming down on the happy populous.

There were birds chirping, of course, singing their tributes to the perfection surrounding them. Sparrows in the green trees and geese in the blue sky and ducks in the blue pond and on the green grass around the pond that sat like a mirror in the middle of the park on the opposite side of the building where I made my home and workplace, where lovers sat on soft blankets with their picnic baskets, feeding each other fresh strawberries purchased from the friendly street merchants and listened to the birds and to the laughter of children running barefoot in the park and to the old man playing his wooden flute at the pond’s edge. There was no sound from the streets, hadn’t been since the city traffic grid was fully computerized a couple years ago to synchronize the movement of vehicles and cutting out any need for shouting and gesturing and honking and making the walking public stay on their toes and try to avoid the sweeping scythe of the grim reaper for one more day. All that was gone, and you could hear the birds and laughter and music waft through the fresh quiet air that breezed softly through the city. Birds and children singing and lovers smiling and the fresh air soaking all the stress and care out of the world leaving only joy and peace and calm serene contentment. That’s the world outside my building. It’s like this every day.

All of which I mention to explain why I’ve had my windows blacked out and sound proofed for years. A private dick can’t have constant good weather and cheer running rampant through his atmosphere when he’s entertaining a client. A customer expects the works when they step into the Lone Eye detective agency and shovel out a few hundred greenbacks to yours truly, and the works is exactly what they get. You won’t see none of that phony “It’s my pleasure to help you and please enjoy this cool beverage while you bask in the glory of the day” garbage when you ask Trigger Steel, P.I., to find the guy that bumped off your Aunt Trudy. It’s a dark and gloomy office I work in, and that suits customer and crime fighter alike just fine, thank you.

Case in point: the dame I been working over verbally and visually all morning is looking at me right now with those big baby blues of hers, and she’s doing it through a curtain of tears. No way she’s looking for someone to flash a big white smile at her and tell her to relax, they’ll find the murderer. Nosir. I keep my pearly whites locked up out of sight behind my lips the whole time, so she knows I’m just as cheesed as she is at a society that would produce a member capable of murdering a friend of the stunning example of bosomy perfection sitting on the other side of my desk. And I sit her where she can see the 3-Deo screen on my wall and look all she wants at the night-rain effects pelting down on the images hustling across the dirty artificial streets with their hair all matted down in their faces. And look she does.

But I only bring this up to set the stage. This story should really start at the beginning, as all good stories do. So now let me begin in earnest the story I call (Note to self: Think of a good name for this case. Incorporate the word “Bloody” if at all possible.)

It was early. Too early. An hour when all the decent folk are asleep. I was celebrating yet another case closed with my long-time companion Jim Beam when the motion sensors registered movement in the hall and buzzed a warning. I grabbed my Plastisteel Saturday Night Special model and slipped it into the holster under my charcoal-grey raincoat. A guy can make quite a few enemies when he puts scum behind bars at a regular pace like myself, especially when he steps on a few toes in the process, and the waffle tread of my size 12 has been pressed into more than one set of toenail polish.

A figure stepped into view on the opposite side of the dirty frosted glass on my outside door. I tugged down my battered fedora and set my features in their best scowl. The door crept open slowly, with a distinct non-squeak, I noticed with dismay. Something to fix when the next meal ticket pays off. My landlord thinks he’s doing me a favor, always fixing my door. I needed to pick up a new batch of old rusty hinges.

I release the grip on my Saturday Night Special as two globes walked in, so round and perfect Magellan would have dropped to his knees and begged for permission to be the first to circumnavigate them, had he been sitting in my chair. Their owner stepped through the door a full second later.

She was tall, blonde and had enough curves in her possession to make a figure eight turn green with jealousy. She barely wore a black dress. The fabric seemed to be struggling for all its might to cover the beauty queen with its meager surface area. The hem sat a few inches below her belt while the top plunged down in a tasteful fashion to stop just shy of her belly button. The whole getup was so tight you could count her freckles through the silky fabric.

She paused in the doorway to look at me briefly with her big blue eyes and tried to stop the tremble in her ruby red lips, which had apparently been stung by some damned lucky bee in the recent past. Then she stepped forward and tripped the light beam I have set up for just such an occasion, and a lonely trumpet sighed out some muted notes from my stereo speakers in response. She paused once again to look for the source of the music, then set forward again with so much sway in her walk I heard a fizzle and smelled smoke as a motion sensor blew a fuse trying to track all the movement in the room. I was vaguely surprised that there was no thumping drum accompaniment. That kind of walk usually carries one.

“I hear you’re the kind of guy that solves problems, Mr. Steel,” she said when the trek from door to desk ended, much too soon for my taste.

I pulled the brim of my Fedora down another notch to make sure my eyes were properly shaded from the dirty light bulb I keep swinging slowly from my ceiling, and leaned back in my chair. After an appropriate pause I leaned forward again and nodded. “You might say that, doll face,” I said, letting the artificial Plastipaper cigarette surgically implanted on the surface of my lower lip bob as I spoke. “You just might say that. When you spend as much time chasing trouble as I do, you can’t help but learn a thing or two about problem-solving.”

I flicked the brim of my hat with my thumb to lift it up, so she could see me narrow my eyes thoughtfully before I continued. “Seems to me that anyone asking a question like that probably has a reason for asking. Could it be that you have the kind of problem that needs special attention like maybe I could provide?”

The leggy hourglass of a prospective client bit her luscious ruby lip with perfect teeth so white I could see the swinging light bulb above slump in shame at the amount of light they reflected while her pendulous walk carried her over to my 3-Deo screen. She stared at the buzzing neon hologram flickering on the side of the fake building next door, reading “MOTEL, va ancy”. I rumpled my raincoat a little more while her back was turned, and turned up the control under my desk to give the room a touch more haze. A puff of smoke floated from the ashtray-shaped smoke puffer on my desk while Dollface sighed at the false window. She turned just enough to say, “There’s been a murder.”

I suppose she thought that would shock me, to hear that someone could get bumped off their mortal coil in this day and age of happy citizenry and high-tech safety, but I solve a murder case a week, and that’s during the slow times. She could have told me the world was round for all the shock I felt. I said, “It’ll cost ya two hundred a day, plus expenses. If I feel like taking the case.”

That got her to turn around entirely. She looked at me in surprise with her bedroom eyes roofed by the kind of eyebrows Michelangelo neglected to paint on the Mona Lisa. “But you haven’t even heard the story yet, Mr. Steel,” she breathed. It was a good thing she had so much room for her lungs; her voice was so breathy she was probably losing a liter of air for every word she spoke.

I smirked and took a long pretend drag on my artificial cigarette. “I just wanted you to know what you were in for before you got started. If you want cheap, don’t even waste your time forming those plump puckerers into another syllable, because my price tag is as firm as those headlights of yours. If you want good then sit right down and spill the cat out of its bag of beans. You want cheap you’re in the wrong place, sister. So go ahead and pick which item in this room has more appeal to you, the door or the chair.” She didn’t hesitate one second before gliding across my hardwood floor and planted herself into the green Plastivinyl chair opposite my little desk. She seemed to have a little trouble sitting still, probably because her legs were too smooth to offer any sort of friction with the chair to keep her in one place.

“Well, let’s get started then,” she sighed. Her batting eyelashes were long enough to knock a few papers of my desk with the resultant breeze. She swallowed heavily once before continuing. “It’s my grandfather. He’s been murdered.” I took out my battered notepad and scribbled Grandfather = dead on it. It’s a move that a client usually finds reassuring. Shows I’m paying attention.

“He was visiting us for a week, just a friendly visit while he was on the East Coast.” A tear dropped from her cheek and ran down her cleavage. “He lives in Kansas, Mr. Steel, and doesn’t get much of a chance to see the family, what with his business and—”

“Just hold it right there,” I interrupted gruffly. “Let’s take this one step and a time. First of all, my mother calls me Mr. Steel. You can call me Trigger. And second, I need a name to call you by, too.”

“Bambi Smith,” Bambi said, smiling for the first time. She ran her velvety tongue over her lips, which somehow pouted even as they smiled, and said, “You can call me Bambi.”

“That’ll work just fine, Bambi. Now let’s get back to the case at hand. You said ‘visiting us’. Just who is it exactly that the old guy was paying a visit to?”

“Well, let’s see.” Bambi gazed at the perforated tiles in my ceiling and tapped the desk with one rounded red nail. “There’s my sister Candy, her husband Englebert and their son Peter, and myself.”

I wrote the names down in my notebook. “All of you live in the same house?”

“It’s a big house, Mr. Steel.”

“I’ve asked you to call me Trigger. If this house is so big, you must have some kind of help to keep the place up.”

Bambi shook her head, working loose a strand of woven gold that made up her hair. “Not really. Just the autoservants.”

“Mm-hm.” I scribbled a little more in my notepad, a doodle of a bunny in a top hat, just moving the pencil to maintain Bambi’s interest. “Cleaner, cook, the usual package?”

“Yes. We’ve got a Maid XLc and a Butler 3200. And a dog, named Spot.” Bambi grimaced. “It seemed like a clever name at the time.”

I wrote the three new names down in my notebook and pondered the suspect list as I had it so far. Two years ago I had surgery to stop my facial hair at three days length so I could scratch my whiskers thoughtfully at times such as this. I slowly did so as I spun the mental wheels. After a while I scratched off the dog’s name as a possible suspect. “How old is this boy Peter?”

“Two months.”

I scratched off Peter’s name as well.

“This granddaddy of yours,” I muttered. “Rich?” Of course he was. There are certain rules a good mystery case must abide by. But a little confirmation always looks good.

Bambi nodded. “Yes, he is. He was, I mean.” Her lips trembled, and she sighed heavily. Her lips stopped trembling, her chest stopped a half minute later. “The whole family is rich. Except for Englebert, maybe.”

I glared at my notepad, pondering. The bunny stared back, mockingly. I normally aim for one small page worth of names and doodles as my meter. Too much info and I run the risk of solving the case before I’m properly dragged into it by the proper intrigue and noir. Two possible lines left to fill in, but that seemed like enough. At any rate, I was running low on metaphors. Gathering up the baggie of cigarette butts I keep ready for traveling with me to crime scenes, I muttered, “Let’s take a walk, sister.”

Bambi looked up at me with those baby blues, questioning. “Nothing left to do but visit the sight itself,” I growled. Bambi sighed, and I had to lean back to give her room to inflate.

The sun greeted us with its normal infuriating brand of cheery goodness as we stepped free of the building, darkening my mood another notch. I pulled Bambi quickly to the safety of my car, where the severely tinted windows keep the fiendish solar glow at bay. Once in I opened up the ashtray to expose the old cigarette butts, which Bambi was kind enough to notice. I started the motor, wincing at the quiet hum the car gave off as it idled. One more thing to look into, when the clams come in from the successful and stylish completion of my passenger’s mystery. Fortunately I always have a backup. I started the misfiring sound effects, and pumped in some burning oil fumes from the spare canister of smells for good measure.

Back in the day, a man in my position could afford to waste a little more time on the set up. A case like this, maybe I could have sent her away twice before allowing Ms. Smith to lure me into her bosomy embrace, at which point I could play the proper reluctant hero and begrudgingly accept the challenge. Nowadays, with everything so backwards, the Feds barge their way in immediately. Wait a good hour, and you’ll probably miss out on your chance.

Pulling up to the house, I saw it was a mansion, of course, resplendent with a dark wrought iron gate to keep riffraff like me out. Bambi pushed it open and sauntered to the door. Being at least two-thirds leg, she made it in a few steps. I hurried to catch up. Bambi pushed the door open when I reached her. I dug out a cigarette butt and threw it on the step, grinding it under my heel before entering. We paused in the lobby to give me time to pull out my notebook and scribble something official in it. To let Bambi know she was getting her money’s worth, I took several minutes to scowl at various objects and scratch my whiskers. I even went so far as to chew on my pencil while glaring suspiciously at an umbrella stand, a move I reserve for select clientele.

“Any clues here?” Bambi asked with a quaver when I turned from the canister. I smirked and slapped the notepad shut.

“There may be, Dollface. There just may be. Where did this dastardly deed take place?”

Bambi nodded towards the stairs. “In the guest bedroom.”

She led the way, struggling against the fabric of her dress, which afforded little room to move. As she grabbed the banister, the varnish oozed underneath her warm grip. A few stitches burst as she sashayed, sending shrapnels of thread in every direction. I tipped down my battered fedora to protect my eyes, steadying myself against the wind generated by her swaying posterior.

We were already too late. The bedroom was crawling with Feds. I recognized one snake in particular and snuck up behind him. As he turned I grabbed him by the shirt and slammed him against a wall. “What’s the deal, Kirker? Not enough satisfaction failing at your own cases, now you gotta butt into my gig?”

Kirker gasped in fear, thinking he was dealing with the devil himself. He wasn’t, quite. I’m not as easy going. “Christ, Percy, what are you doing here? I thought they took your license away.”

I twisted the end of my fake cigarette, which spat out smoke dutifully, billowing into Kirker’s face. “Don’t need a license to find the truth, Kirker. Why not stand back and let a pro show you how it’s done?” I let him go to dig out another cigarette butt and grind it into the floor. “By the way, the name’s Trigger, pal, not Percy. You’ve got me mixed with some other sap.”

“Whatever. Anyway, we’re done. There was no foul play, of course,” he sighed at me. “The old guy’s heart failed.”

I turned to Bambi, who was misty eyed with awe watching a real man like myself in action. “Maybe that’s what someone wants you to think, Kirker. Ms. Smith here thinks different.”

Bambi nodded and sighed, knocking down a few of the Feds in the room during inhalation.

“Nope,” Kirker said, looking through a sheaf of plastipapers. “Full enzymatic profile, biochemical analysis, genetic sweep… no intruders or suspicious physiological condition. Heart attack.”

“You trust your fancy schmancy technology, Kirker,” I growled as I glared at each of the Feds in turn. “I’ve got a different kind of tool. It’s called instinct, Kirker. A man in my profession learns to trust his gut.”

“Whatever you say, Percy.”

“Trigger, Kirker. The name is Trigger Steel. I think someone in the family fixed Pops an arsenic omelet for breakfast. And I think it was Candy.”

Kirker looked through his report. “Who’s Candy? There’s no Candy in my records. Will you please back off and let us finish up here?”

I smirked. “Probably because she wanted it that way. Candy doesn’t want to be noticed. And why would that be?”

“Because she doesn’t exist? Go away, please?”

“Because she killed Pops, that’s why.” I nodded to Bambi. “Something Ms. Smith told me earlier gave me the clue I needed. Seems her husband Englebert is less then successful in financial respects. Set herself up as a recipient to Granddaddy’s fortune, then slipped him a terminal Mickey. Nice and neat.”

“Who’s Englebert?” Kirker sighed, fearing my inevitable solvation of the case.

“That’s right,” Bambi said from the doorway. Her chin dropped to rest on the platform of cleavage just underneath it. “Candy was in the will…”

“We did a full genetic sweep of the house, Percy. No DNA but the victim and the lady right here. Heart attack.”

I scowled. Everything fell into place in my mind like the pieces of a well-oiled jigsaw puzzle. “No, Kirker, that’s just what someone wanted you to think. Someone in this room.”

“He was 106 years old, Percy!” Kirker shouted in desperation, trying to stave off my crime-solving geniusness. “His heart was way overdue to give out!”

“How did you know Candy was on Granddaddy’s will, Bambi?” I asked quietly. “Unless, perhaps, you saw the will yourself. Maybe while checking to see what your cut was, just before you bought him a one-way ticket to Never Ever Land.”

Bambi broke under the relentless pressure of my gritty questioning. “It’s true!” she wailed, shaking with sobs. Everyone in the room grabbed for something to support them while the air shook with her tremors. “I killed him, and tried to pin it on Candy! I wanted to hire a detective to make sure I had a convincing story to tell.”

“You made just one mistake, Dollface,” I said gruffly. “You hired Trigger Steel to solve the case. And Trigger Steel always does just that.” I checked my watch. Solved the case in a less than thirty minutes, and still had time for a brief bout of intrigue. Not bad, Trigger.

“City monitors put you at lunch in a deli four miles from here when the heart attack occurred, Ms. Smith,” Kirker said. “I think you’re innocent.”

“No one’s innocent in this life, Kirker,” I said while fixing Bambi with a withering glare. “No one.”

“He’s right, Mr. Kirker,” Bambi sobbed. “He’s right.”

Kirker looked back and forth between us, gumshoe and goddess. “You’re as delusional as he is, aren’t you, Ms. Smith? You actually enjoy all this detective pulp nonsense?”

“Just take her away, boys,” I said. “She’s got a date with a judge and an electric chair.”

Bambi kissed me suddenly, mashing herself against me. “I’m sorry, Trigger,” she sobbed.

“You call me Mr. Steel.”

“Or call him Percy Slechthauser, since that’s his name,” Kirker muttered, ever the sore loser. “I’ll take her away, but only so she can get some help. God knows we don’t need more of your type.” He escorted Bambi to her destiny.

As for me, I left the Federal boys to clean things up. Let them get the kudos. I had a promise to keep to an old friend who was waiting patiently in a flask back at the office.

Behind my desk once more, Jim and I got intimate while I marked a folder “Bambi” and stuck it in the Case Solved file cabinet. I no sooner sat back down at my desk than a pair of stiletto heels walked into my office, carrying a set of legs genetically engineered for those heels. The owner of the gams stopped just short of my desk, and two dark pools of chocolate milk posing as eyes stared at me from under a long wavy curtain of raven hair. “I hear you solve problems, Mr. Steel,” the slightly pouted lips breathed.

“You might say that, Angel,” I said between pulls on my flask. “You just might say exactly that.”

 

The Case of the Tiny Man

by Richard Wolkomir

 

So I’m hearing two-ton feet clomp up the stairs to my office, and I’m smelling landfill, and I’m thinking: “Uh-oh.” I pull the .45 out of my drawer and lay it on the desk, my way of saying, “Howdy.”

Sure enough, the door opens—no knock, thank you—and it’s a troll. Big buster, too. He’s got to duck through the doorway. He’s wearing blue sunglasses. He’s also toting a jumbo rolled-up white parasol, which you can bet he carried opened outside, because if sunshine hits him, you’ve got a troll statue. He lowers himself into my client chair, and I’m thinking, you break it, you buy it. But it just creaks, and he sits glaring at me and reeking.

I’d open a window, except my office doesn’t have one.

To kill the aroma, I finger a smoke out of the pack on my desk and stick it in my kisser and butane it with my .45. Then I lean back, blow a smoke ring, give him the raised-eyebrows look.

“Need a shamus,” he grunts.

“Get an elf shamus,” I tell him.

“No,” he says. “You.”

He’s glaring at me with those cape-buffalo eyes, and I’m thinking, maybe—in demonstrating that my .45 merely ignites coffin nails—I erred. A real pea shooter would be helpful. But just now I’m short the kale.

“I don’t do magicals,” I tell him.

“Need a human,” he says. “You.”

“I don’t work over in Magictown,” I tell him.

“She says, this young man, he could sniff out a lost pickle in a pickle factory,” Big Stinky tells me.

“Who says?” I say, cracking wise. “My mother?”

“Yes,” he says. “Your mother.”

I’m thinking, Damn it, Mom!

She’s got this shop over where our half of the city nudges Magictown, and she sells everything organic and herby in there, from dried St. John’s wort to genuine fairy dust, flown in fresh every Friday from wee factories in Europe. She’s got human customers, from right here in Folkcity, plus all sorts creeping in from Magictown, a regular little shop of horrors.

“She says you need money,” says the troll. “Boss will pay $50,000.”

He had me at “need money.” At “$50,000” I felt faint.

But I play it cool—lean back, blow smoke rings at the tin ceiling. Big Stinky doesn’t need to know I’m three months into the shamus business, and so far my only case was a granny a-twitter because her heirloom earrings got heisted, and it turned out she’d absent-mindedly stashed them in the drawer with her undies. Twenty-five bucks for that. And the office rent due.

Big Stinky doesn’t say anything. Just watches me blow smoke rings. No expression except ugly.

“What’s the job?” I finally ask, faking a yawn, to indicate I sometimes do lower myself to accept a $50,000 case, but only if it offers both edification and spiritual development.

“You find the homunculus,” he says.

Okay, it’s edifying.

“Bring homunculus back,” he says.

Spiritual? You betcha!

“I’ll need a third up front, for expenses,” I say, like that’s my policy with these minor cases. “Also, I need facts, like what’s up?”

You can see he’s struggling to marshal his mosquito brain’s three neurons. But his strong suit is muscle. I figure he’s bodyguard for some Mr. Big, which is a bull’s-eye.

“I work in the Magictown Mayoral Personal Protection Division,” Big Stinky divulges. And then he whispers, as if invoking the deity: “Mayor Duskowl.”

“Ah,” I say, and blow another ring at the ceiling. “Wulf Duskowl won two gold medals in the Sorcery Olympics, then got elected Magictown’s mayor, slogan being ‘Let’s Have a Spell of Progress,’ and he gets kudos in the Magictown Monitorfor providing benefits to aging gnomes and boggarts, and orphaned pixies, and going after Saturday-night-special wands.”

I’m showing Big Stinky I’m up on his bailiwick’s news. I’m keeping it to myself that his ilk—Magictown’s citizenry—gives me the creeps.

“Election coming,” he says. “And the ogres…”

Turns out Mayor Duskowl’s up against the Ogre-Goblin Alliance in the next go-round, and they’re running on the platform, “Is It Dark Enough For You?” Wulf Duskowl and his Go-To-The-Light Party should be a shoo-in, but the ogres and goblins play dirty, zinging in well-placed spells, a hex where it hurts…

“Mayor needed a homunculus,” Big Stinky confides.

Duskowl, he says, contracted with Amalgamated Alchemical Laboratories, Inc., to brew a homunculus, which Big Stinky says is “a little guy, grows in a flask.”

I glean that a homunculus will magnify the mayor’s sorcery, double his whammy. And that will offset the ogre-goblin mud-balls.

But now the homunculus has gone missing. And a homunculus in bad hands…

“Went up in smoke?” I ask.

And I think Big Stinky’s going to cry.

“Long day—meetings and meetings,” he says. “Then a speech, then a soiree, and I’ve got to be watching because, well, you know how goblins are, and then it’s night, and I’m in the mayor’s office guarding the homunculus and…”

He looks, believe it or not, pathetic. The big lug.

“Hey, spill it,” I say. “I’m feeling your pain.”

“I fell asleep,” he moans. “On the mayor’s sofa.”

When he woke up, the next morning, no homunculus. He tells me nobody can get into the office but trusted aids, like him. Big Stinky’s convinced the homunculus went AWOL.

“Bugger!” he says.

He holds up his thumb, which is the size of my head: at the tip, it’s got a nasty bite mark.

“Homunculus, he’s a lemon,” Big Stinky says.

He tells me that Amalgamated Alchemical cut corners. For one thing, homunculus brewing’s main ingredient is a mandrake root dug up under a gallows. But the Magictown Fair-Trade Commission investigated—turns out Amalgamated got their mandrake root from a low-bid supplier, who claimed it was gallows certified, when it actually came from his backyard. Also, the Alchemical Regulatory Act stipulates a black dog must dig up the root before dawn on a Friday. But the supplier deployed his aged golden retriever, who slept in Friday, finally dug up the root on Saturday afternoon, then went back to sleep exhausted.

Net result: a malfunctioning homunculus.

“Why hire me?” I ask. “You’ve got plenty of elf shamuses over there.”

“Homunculus only talks to humans, the bugger,” says Big Stinky. “And he’s probably hiding over here in Folkcity, so we need a human shamus.”

“Okay,” I say. “I’m on it, just send my check—I’ll keep you informed.”

He picks up his parasol. He shambles to the door, taking his reek with him. Just as he’s about to duck out, I say, “Hey, one more question.”

He turns, stooped over, half in, half out.

“Who cleans the mayor’s office?” I ask.

“That would be Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services,” he says.

“Maybe I’ll give them a try,” I tell him. “Dust in here inflames my sinuses.”

I hear those two-ton footsteps clomping down the stairs and I’m feeling queasy. I’d vowed, no cases involving magicals. That their whole tribe has negative appeal, like a wart on your nose, that much I know. Otherwise, it’s all don’t knows.

I pocket my trusty .45—who knows?—and head for the obvious place.

Except, when I exit my edifice, across the street a twosome eyes me, a butterball of a guy and a woman with carrot-colored hair sticking up in that chic stuck-my-finger-in-a-light-socket look. He’s got a cast on one leg and a crutch and she’s got her arm in a sling, and they’re both peppered all over with Band-Aids. They pretend to check out omelet pans in the window of a used kitchenware store over there, but I’m not buying it. On the other hand, I don’t know what to do about it, either.

So off I go on my mission.

* * * * *

“Hey, Mom?” I say.

It’s a busy day at Piffin’s Naturals. Mom’s handing over a biodegradable corn-based plastic baggie, tied with a twisty and filled with yellow stuff, to a guy with pimples and a pallor who could probably benefit from just about anything. Meanwhile, a young woman is waiting to pay for three sticks of cinnamon, and behind her stands a gray-faced gnome with a bottle of Nature’s Glue.

I join the lineup, behind the gnome, and shout, “Mom—you know a big troll, wears blue sunglasses, smells like garbage?”

“Arlo,” Mom mouths at me. “Be polite.”

Now she’s ringing up the cinnamon sticks.

“That’s my son, Arlo,” she tells the young woman. “He wasted his childhood reading thousands of private-eye novels, and now he’s a shamus, when he could be helping the planet, like being an organic farmer, and that will be $6.57 for the cinnamon sticks, with tax, Janie—they’re particularly efficacious for your affliction if you brew them with jasmine tea.”

Janie stares at her purchase.

“You don’t think with rain-forest-friendly organic cocoa, Mrs. Piffin?” she asks.

“It’s your itch, not mine, dear, but I do think jasmine tea…”

Janie goes off to fetch jasmine tea. Now the gnome’s forking over a fiver for his Nature’s Glue.

“Mom,” I say. “About the troll…”

Mom sighs.

Addressing the gnome, she says: “I thought, since he’s a genius, he might get an exchange-student scholarship to Thaumaturgy U. in Magictown—he couldn’t be a clinical wizard, of course, but I thought maybe on the theoretical side…”

“Theoreticians are important, certainly,” says the gnome, pocketing his change. “Where else would the new spells come from?”

Mom sighs again, displaying her sad, disappointed look. Me, I’ve got my own disappointments. Like, since Dad took off for Nepal with a Starbuck’s barista, when I was three, Mom’s worn only black Victorian-era widow’s gowns, with little black bonnets, and who wants to bring fellow students home from the Folkcity Institute of Criminal Investigation to see that?

“Remember, don’t use too much glue, Edlok,” she tells the gnome. “And press the two pieces of bat’s wing together for at least five minutes, so it seals nicely.”

Exeunt gnome.

“Mom,” I say. “About the troll…”

“It was Grunlie,” she tells me. “He needed a human shamus, and guess who I said? Grunlie stops in for persimmon juice, for his digestion, and… Arlo, are you getting enough to eat?”

Now some guy in a gray suit comes over to pay for a broccoli-sprouts-and-organic-portabella-mushroom sandwich, with soy cheese, on organic spelt bread, in a biodegradable container made from compressed organically grown peanut shells. He’s looking at me, critical.

“This boy’s too skinny for a shamus,” he tells Mom.

He hands over his money, still eyeing me.

“Awfully young for a shamus, too—what, just out of college?” he tells Mom. “And he ought to lose that skimpy little mustache because it gives the impression he’s trying to look more mature.”

Mom, ringing up the transaction, sighs.

“Mr. Bridges,” she says. “You have no idea how many times I’ve told him to strengthen his chakras…”

She sighs again. Mr. Bridges shakes his head in sympathy with my mother’s burdens.

Exeunt Mr. Bridges.

By now Janie’s back with jasmine tea, which works well with cinnamon sticks versus the itch.

“Mom,” I say, “I’m on a big case here, and I’m wondering if any of your customers mentioned seeing a little guy around, small enough to take a nap in an orange-juice carton?”

Mom rings up Janie’s cinnamon sticks and jasmine tea.

“Well, somebody mentioned a human-headed pigeon perched up over the subway entrance at…”

But now Janie turns around and gives me a look.

“Funny you should mention that,” she says.

It turns out her boyfriend, just an hour ago, stopped for a brew at Sneaky Pete’s Tavern, three blocks from Piffin’s Naturals, and sitting in there on a bar-stool is a one-foot midget, wearing a Roman toga, totally skunked, buying beers all around, and regaling everyone in the establishment with a stream of invective targeting Magictown’s mayor, his assistants, and all the various races of magicals in general. So, like a slug from a revolver, I shoot out of there.

Then I shoot back.

“One question, Mom,” I say. “Ever hear of Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services?”

“No,” she says. “Have you tried the phone book?”

I give her look. And then I do shoot off to that tavern.

* * * * *

He’s there all right.

If he stood up real tall he’d be halfway to your knee. But, in fact, he’s lying on the bar on his back, snoring. His toga’s got a beer stain on it, but he’s got the face of a cherub. To me, though, he looks like $50,000. I just need to whisk him off to his rightful home.

Sneaky Pete, a bald beefalo with a seen-it-all look in his squinty eyes, is standing behind the bar wiping just-washed steins with a towel and clinking them onto a shelf. I give him a friendly wink.

“If you’re done with my Uncle Maynard here,” I say, nodding at the supine homunculus, “I believe Auntie Bridgett wants him home to help polish the silver.”

He gives me an “oh, yeah” look.

“Haul him out of here,” he says. “But not until—as his beloved nephew—you pay the thirty-two-bucks he owes, buying rounds.”

“Let me start a tab,” I say.

“Cash,” he says.

I’m thinking of snatching the little fellow and running like hell. But then I hear a woman’s voice behind me.

“Such a dear, cute teeny man, and that toga’s to die for,” she says. “Oscar, let’s pay his bill, as a charity.”

I turn, and it’s the woman I saw across the street from my office, with electrified red hair. Standing beside her is Mr. Butterball, and they’ve both still got their assorted casts, crutches, slings, and Band-Aids.

“We insist,” she says, snapping open her purse.

She extracts a Jackson, a Hamilton, and two Washingtons and slaps them onto the bar.

“Accept our family’s gratitude,” I say, scooping up the $50,000 homunculus before she gets her blue-enameled talons into him. “When Uncle Maynard wakes up, I know he’ll love you for it.”

“Our pleasure,” she says. “We’ll say our goodbyes outside, won’t we, Oscar.”

Her partner gives her a wink. I’m not liking this. But I’ve got the homunculus in my mitts, and I’m headed for the door, and I don’t see what these two bandaged-up semi- cripples can do about it.

Outside the bar, I feel something hard pushed into my back.

“That’s a .45,” says Oscar. “Hand over our little friend.”

“What you’ve got there,” I say, wry, “is a butane lighter shaped like a .45, examples of which I’ve seen.”

I feel the pistol withdrawn from my back. I turn, and Oscar’s holding the thing, looking at it.

“Why would you say that?” he says. “I paid a lot for this weapon in a gun shop this morning, and I’ve already test fired it in the alley in back of our apartment, and if you’re implying that I’m no good as a shopper…”

Clearly he’s got the nervous twitchies. Which bodes ill in a fellow waving a loaded Smith and Wesson. Especially since I notice we’ve got the street to ourselves.

“Look,” I tell him. “What I’m saying is, murder somebody for a midget, you sit on Old Sparky.”

“I’ll just shoot off your kneecap,” he says.

“Gimme,” says Carrot Top.

And she takes.

So now she’s holding the little darling, who’s still snoring. And I’m standing there with Oscar shakily pointing his popper at me. And I’m thinking, so what’s wrong with being an organic farmer?

“Turn around,” Oscar says.

When I do that, my head explodes, from getting hammered with Oscar’s pistol’s hilt. Next, I’m sitting on the sidewalk watching shooting stars. And when the fireworks end, I’m sitting there all alone, sans the $50,000 homunculus, but with a headache.

Which gets my gumption up. So I moan my way to a telephone booth and check the book.

* * * * *

I find the place squeezed between a plumbing equipment wholesaler and a glass-repair shop. Its faded window sign says: “Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services—We’ll Come Clean.” Smaller letters spell out “Oscar and Nadine Slocum, Proprietors.” It’s closed-up tight, nobody home.

At the glass shop next door, I check their phone book for Slocum. Then I’m on my way. But, en route, I duck into a pet store and purchase a kitty carrier, using the last of my fortune. So I’m toting that when I walk up the front steps of their grimy brick tenement, where a muscle-bound bearded guy in a black suit and a black fedora leans against the balustrade, smoking something black and acrid. He gives me a yellow-eyed look.

I check the foyer mailboxes, then slog up three flights, smelling various residents’ cuisine, mostly hotdogs. I fetch up at 3C, from which emanate thumps and thuds.

I’d guess the Slocums are practicing their free-style dance routine, except I also hear an “Ouch!” I can’t see anything through the keyhole. But I have in my pocket a wire for jimmying locks, which is illegal. But $50,000 trumps scruples.

I get the door open an inch, peep inside, and see Oscar on his keister beside an overturned lamp. He’s rolled up one trouser leg to examine a gash in his shin, and Nadine’s brandishing a kitchen chair, lion-tamer style, to ward off the homunculus, who’s waving a fork at her, yelling in a high squeak: “Fraternizes with the enemy!” Off to one side I see a chicken-wire cage, where I suppose they were keeping him, with the door busted open. I’m betting Oscar doesn’t have his automatic handy.

So I step right on in with my kitty carrier.

All three stop their mayhem and look at me. I pull out my own .45 and wave it at Oscar, then at Nadine, and forget to mention it’s only a smokes lighter. Then I turn my attention to the little fellow in the toga, still holding his fork and eyeing me, undecided.

“Hey there, Mr. Homunculus,” I say. “I’m with the Folkcity Anti-Kidnapping Squad—have you been abducted?”

“Hah,” he says, in that squeaker of a voice.

He peers at me, looking like an infant. Except that he’s a perfectly formed man the size of a squirrel.

“Don’t listen to him,” says Nadine. “He’s a shamus working for Wulf Duskowl and…”

I show her my .45, wordlessly threatening her with the wrath of butane. So she zips it and I give the homunculus a warm smile.

“Let’s get you out of here,” I tell him.

He narrows his eyes, expressing distrust.

“What’s Duskowl paying you?” Oscar says, from the floor.

“Our people will double it,” says Nadine.

“Trust ogres and goblins?” I say.

Now the homunculus puts down his fork and applauds.

“Ogres and goblins are slime,” he squeaks. “Wizards and sorcerers are puke, and elves, kobolds, pixies, kelpies, and imps are goat spit, and…”

Such thoughts have occurred to me. But squeaked out loud, they sound bigoted.

“Just because a few bad apples,” I start to say, “act in ways we might disapprove…”

But the homunculus sticks out his tongue at me and utters a Bronx cheer.

So I grab the little bugger by his toga and toss him into my kitty carrier and lock its door. He’s screaming curses at me and kicking the wires with his perfectly formed tiny foot.

“Toodle-oo,” I tell Oscar and Nadine, on my way out the door.

But then I back into the room again, because charging down the hall is the yellow-eyed creep in black who was hanging around the apartment house’s front stoop. And as he comes he’s transforming into a gangster-clothes-wearing wolf. I have a really bad feeling about this.

In his kitty carrier, where he is now sitting cross-armed and cross-legged, like a pipsqueak yogi, the homunculus proclaims: “Werewolves eat donkey dung!”

I’ve got my .45 out, pointed at the wolf’s drooling snout.

“Hold it right there, Rin-Tin-Tin,” I say.

I mean it to sound tough, but it comes out a shriek. Upon which the werewolf sits down on his hairy butt and starts silently laughing, shoulders shaking. He wolfishly grins, showing off his fangs.

“You took your time getting up here,” Nadine tells the werewolf. “And you people never told us the homunculus is a little jerk who bites and kicks and scratches and that he might bust free and go on a toot, and…”

A growl shuts her up. Wolfie gives them a yellow-eyed glare, then turns those yellow eyes on me. He crouches for a spring, planning a dinner of shamus tartare.

I’m thinking, maybe I can butane him, and then he’ll stop to hold his burnt nose. So I’m aiming my .45, except I’ve got my eyes closed, yearning for magical powers of my own, like the ability to change a werewolf into a werecanary, waiting for that hairy body to hit me, and the teeth…

But nothing happens.

I open my eyes and there on the floor at my feet stands a confused-looking canary.

So I hoist up the kitty carrier and evacuate the joint, drunk-lurching on rubber legs. I wobble down the stairs, and only after I’ve put a couple of blocks between me and Chez Slocum do I realize the homunculus shot out a little magic on my behalf.

I peer into the kitty carrier.

He’s sitting in his yogi position, arms and legs folded, scowling.

“Thanks,” I say.

He looks away, making it clear we’re not on speaking terms.

“Hey,” I say. “You’re the magical, not me!”

He won’t look at me.

But I’m looking at $50,000. It’ll almost make up for losing his friendship. Now I need to get him to Magictown’s City Hall without getting hexed. I figure they’ll be watching my office.

So I go to the obvious place.

* * * * *

“Hey, Mom,” I say. “My cell phone’s getting zero bars—can I use your landline?”

We’re sitting in her office cubicle, just off the shop, and she’s counting the day’s take. She looks up at me over her octagonal rimless reading specs.

“But I always get lots of bars here,” she says.

“Uh-oh,” I say.

I try the landline phone. It’s dead.

So I won’t be calling Big Stinky at the Magictown Mayor’s office, saying come collect the merchandise. I inch back the window curtain to peep at the street. Two goblins lean against separate telephone poles. Two more skulk in a doorway, smoking. They’re all wearing black fedoras. One wears a Miley Cyrus backpack. And they’ve all got their beady reds fixed on Piffin’s Naturals’ front door, which is its only door.

“They’ve blanked the phones,” I tell the homunculus, who’s sulking in his kitty carrier. “So you choose—Mayor Duskowl? Or those goblins out there?”

He gives me a raspberry.

“Look, give me some support here,” I say. “Pop some more magic—do it for the Gipper.”

He turns his back.

“Arlo, homunculi don’t do magic on their own,” Mom tells me.

“He just turned a werewolf into a werecanary,” I say.

“Oh, dear,” Mom says, giving me a wide-eyed look.

A bang on the door.

We’re disinclined to open it. So now the door gets the full running four-shoulder whamo. That busts its puny lock. It careens open, and I’m looking at four sets of red eyes.

“Arlo,” my mother says. “We have to talk.”

“Not a good time,” I say, pulling out my .45 and showing it to the goblins.

One of them lazily points a finger and the gun sears my hand. I drop it, trying to shake away the burn, which gives the goblins the giggles. Now they spot the homunculus in his kitty carrier, and my question is, do we get out of this still breathing?

I see my mother take a deep breath and sigh.

“Arlo, you should know your dad’s mother was an undine,” she tells me. “His father—your grandpa—met her at an inter-university mixer.”

Now the goblins start toward the kitty carrier, on a collision course with me. Because in this little cubicle I’ve got nowhere to duck.

“I thought you should know,” Mom says.

I get whammed onto the floor. I see goblin hiking boots pass over my prostrate form. I see a hairy goblin hand, claws badly needing a clipping, reach for the kitty carrier. I see the homunculus looking from me to the goblins.

I find myself longing—a deep, aching yen—for Big Stinky’s companionship.

The goblin holds up the kitty carrier, peering at the homunculus inside. The homunculus glares back.

“Goblins,” the homunculus declares, “are bat guano.”

Which causes the goblin to shriek and shake the cage, proving goblins are so sensitive it’s a wonder they get through their days. And do they always stash rope in their backpacks?

Because now Mom and I are sitting on the floor, each with our ankles tied together, and our wrists tied behind our backs. And the goblins are holding a meeting, of which I hear snatches.

“…witnesses…”

“…yeah, and the Elections Commission would…”

“Burn the place down, with them in it?”

Goblin giggling.

Out of the backpack comes a can of lighter fluid. A goblin pours the stuff around on the floor, whistling while he works. Meanwhile, another goblin digs in his pocket for matches.

“So, because of your paternal grandmother being an undine, Arlo, you’re one-quarter magical,” Mom whispers. “Which opens up the possibility…”

“Magicals disgust me,” I moan. “I’ve always despised them.”

“Arlo, that’s because of a suppressed childhood memory,” Mom says.

I’m watching the goblin finally strike a match. He stares at the flame, giggling.

“It’s my fault,” Mom whispers. “Because your father didn’t actually run off to Nepal with a Starbucks barista, which I told you because I was so mad at the hussy.”

She sighs.

“Actually, he ran off to Nepal with a succubus, whom I thought was sort of my friend and… I think you knew the truth, though, and it left you with this sad prejudice, as if one depraved, sex-addicted, toxic-waste-super-site of a succubus means the whole race of magicals is…”

I glumly watch the goblin lean down to ignite the puddle of lighter fluid on the floor.

“I’m only a quarter magical,” I tell Mom. “It’s not enough.”

“This homunculus is a magic magnifier,” Mom says.

I squint my eyes shut and think: snuff the match!

I open my eyes and the goblin is staring with irritated red eyes at a snuffed match. He reaches for another.

How big can I go with this, I wonder. Fill the room with pink fog that puts goblins—and only goblins—into a deep snooze? Probably beyond me. Also, I see the homunculus glaring at me from the kitty carrier. He hates goblins, he hates me. If he’s not a willing magic magnifier, does the enterprise fizzle? Now the goblin has match number two lit. I’m about to snuff it, when I notice that all four goblins hold lit matches. Which they throw onto the lighter fluid on the floor before I can say presto, and giggle around the resulting campfires, pretending to warm their hands.

One of them gives me an ironic salute, clawed forefinger to his forehead, and they start out the door with the homunculus in his carrier. And I’m thinking, there goes the magic.

“Arlo, do something,” Mom says.

And I’m really, really wanting to. But all I can think of is “rabid canary,” remembering my werewolf triumph.

Next, all four goblins back into the cubicle again, where the fire is crackling and it’s getting smoky—a werecanary is flying at them and pecking, while they try to swat it away. I squint my eyes again and wish real hard and when I open them the fires on the floor are snuffed.

But now, while two goblins swat at the attacking canary, which is executing barrel rolls and nosedives, the other two gaze at the homunculus, then at me, with wild surmise. They start toward me with a red glare in their eyes.

I squint my eyes shut and wish away my ropes. Which works. I stand, retrieve my .45 from the floor, squint again, wish again, and voila! I am now holding a genuine automatic, which I point at the goblins, figuring that if they point at my hand to give me the burns, the trigger gets pulled.

So we’re all glaring at each other when something big and smelly, wearing blue sunglasses, shoulders through the doorway.

“Hey, what took you so long?” I say.

“Your message comes, all funny and hard to understand,” he says, one-handedly grabbing two goblins by their shirt fronts and with his other paw grabbing two more, and holding them up like chickens he just bought at the Chinese market.

Coming in behind him is a skinny guy, not much older than me, wearing a wizard’s robe.

“I’m Wulf Duskowl,” he says, taking in the scene.

“I’m Arlo Piffin,” I say. “And in that kitty carrier is your homunculus, and you’re welcome to him.”

“Did you know we’re distant cousins?” Duskowl says.

Turns out my paternal grandmother, the undine, was his maternal grandfather’s sister. Are we all family, or what?

“How do you feel about nepotism?” he asks.

* * * * *

So that’s how I come to be sitting in my new office, over here in Magictown. Sign on the door says: “Mayoral Bureau of Special Investigations, Arlo Piffin, Director.”

Salary? Substantial.

Benefits? Cool.

Satisfaction? Not bad, except for the reek—Big Stinky’s got the office next door. And the homunculus has his tiny desk beside mine, and we don’t get along.