“I think we’re being followed,” Bernie said.
That had to be one of Bernie’s jokes. Have I mentioned that he can be quite the jokester? Probably not, since we’re just getting started, but who else except Bernie would even think of saying that? We were creeping along at walking speed on the East Canyon Freeway at rush hour, stuck in an endless river of traffic. Of course we were being followed, followed by too many cars to count! Not only too many for me to count—I don’t go past two—but also for Bernie. And Bernie’s always the smartest human in the room, one of the reasons the Little Detective Agency is so successful, leaving out the finances part. It’s called that on account of Bernie’s last name being Little. I’m Chet, pure and simple, not the smartest human in the room, in fact, not human. I bring other things to the table.
Bernie glanced at the rearview mirror. Our ride’s a Porsche, not the old one that went off a cliff, or the older one that got blown up, but the new one—which happens to be the very oldest—with the martini glasses paint job on the fenders. We used to have a top and also a very cool chain hanging from the rearview mirror, a chain we’d taken off a biker after … what would you call it? A dispute? Good enough. But recently, we’d had to use it to temporarily cuff—wow! Another biker! How amazing was that? I came close to finding some sort of deep meaning, but before I could get there, Bernie said, “Three lanes over, six cars back, in front of the Amazon truck—see the maroon Kia?”
I checked the rearview mirror myself. Three? Six? Amazon? Maroon? Kia? Every single one of them not easy for me. But I’ve always been lucky in life, so all I saw in the rearview mirror was Bernie. My Bernie. He has the best face in the world, especially if you like strong noses and eyebrows with a language all their own, and I do. He has plans to get that slightly crooked angle in his nose straightened out after he’s sure it won’t be broken again. But that would mean game over for his uppercut, that sweet, sweet uppercut guaranteed to put perps to sleep, so I hope his nose stays just how it is forever.
“Can’t make out the driver,” he said, “but that Kia was in the back corner of the Donut Heaven lot, meaning whoever it is has been with us for ten miles on a real complicated route.” He turned to me and smiled. “Dollars to doughnuts, Chet.”
That was a puzzler. Bernie’d had a cruller, and I’d gone with the sausage croissant, doughnuts not even mentioned. Just to make sure, I licked my muzzle, picking up the unmistakable—and wonderful—taste of sausage. But in our business, you have to be sure, so I did it again and again and again and—
“Something the matter, big guy?”
Nothing. We were good. I stopped whatever I’d been doing, sat up straight in the shotgun seat, alert and ready for action, a total pro.
“Let’s run a little test,” Bernie said, suddenly crossing several lanes and taking an exit. There was some honking, but I’d heard worse. The point was we were taking charge and naming names! Chet! Bernie! Those are all the names you need to know for now.
We’ve been followed by bad guys more than once, the last time down in a little village south of the border, an incident involving an army-type tank packed with unfriendly cartel dudes and a dead-end alley. That had turned into an exciting adventure, full of all sorts of fancy driving on Bernie’s part—and even for a fun moment or two on mine!—but nothing like that was happening now. Instead, we rolled along nice and easy, turning onto one street, then another, and a bunch more, and finally ending up in a shady part of Old Town, with small wooden houses on one side and a park on the other, not one of those green, grassy parks that Bernie hates but the rocky, cactusy kind he likes. He didn’t check the rearview, not even once. We pulled over and stopped on the park side and just sat there. A car went slowly by. Was that what maroon looked like? So nice to be learning new things! Meanwhile, I caught a glimpse of the driver: a young woman, eyes on the road, baseball cap on her head, ponytail sticking out the back. Ponies are horses, and I’ve had lots of experience with horses, none good. They’re prima donnas, each and every one. So how come some humans want to look like them? A complete mystery. But solving mysteries is what we do, me and Bernie. Life was good. I felt tip-top.
Meanwhile, the maroon car kept going, made a turn at the next block, and vanished from sight. Right away, I got the picture. She’d been following us. Now we were going to follow her! That’s called turning the tables in our business. Here’s a secret: you don’t always need a table to do it, although once we did use an actual table, turning it upside down on the Boccerino brothers and perhaps also on some unlucky folks sitting nearby. That was at the Ritz, where we haven’t been back.
But forget all that, because Bernie wasn’t turning the key, jamming the car into gear, stomping on the gas, burning rubber. He was just sitting there, gazing peacefully ahead, possibly even falling asleep. Bernie? I laid a paw on his shoulder in the friendliest way.
“Ooof!” said Bernie, possibly crashing into—well, not crashing into, more like leaning against his door, most likely what he wanted to do anyway. He gave me a look that could have meant anything. I gave him the same look back. Bernie laughed. Laughter’s the best human sound, and Bernie’s is the best of the best, even when it’s a quiet laugh like this one.
“No worries,” he said. “We’re not dealing with a pro.”
Good to know. Were we dealing with anything? Anybody? When was the last time we got paid? I was wondering about all that when the maroon car came by again, this time slowing down, pulling over, and parking in front of us.
“The most amateur kind of amateur,” Bernie said.
We sat. The ponytail woman sat, not once checking her mirror or glancing back at us.
“An amateur and scared,” Bernie said. He made a little click click noise, meaning, Let’s roll, big guy. We hopped out, me actually hopping right over my closed door and Bernie just getting out in the normal human way, which was our usual MO. But I’d seen him hop out—for example, the time with that whole cluster of sidewinders under the driver’s seat—so he had it in him.
We walked up to the maroon car. The way we do this, amateur—whatever that happens to be—or not, is Bernie on the driver’s side and me on the other. How many perps have taken one look at Bernie and then dived out the passenger-side door, only to get a real big surprise—namely, me? But that didn’t happen with the ponytail woman. Instead, she went on sitting there, hands holding the wheel tight.
Bernie leaned down and spoke through her open window. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” he said.
Whoa. We’d met this woman before? One thing about my nose: it remembers the smell of everyone I’ve ever met, and it did not remember this woman. She had an interesting smell, a bit piney, that made me think of New Mexico, which we’d visited on several cases, picking up a speeding ticket every time. Through the open passenger-side window, I was getting my first clear look at her face. A young face, but not quite as young as the face of a college kid. In the faces of college kids, you can still see a bit of the little kid face that was. There was no little kid left in the ponytail woman’s face, which was turning pink. Her eyes were big and the brightest blue I’d ever seen, actually the color of this morning’s sky, like the sky was shining inside her.
“Sorry,” Bernie said. “Bad joke.”
I’m sure it was a very good joke, although it’s true the woman hadn’t laughed. But I was glad to hear it was a joke and we hadn’t met before, because now I didn’t need to choose between my nose and Bernie’s word, which would have been the hardest choice of my life. Stay away from hard choices if you want to be happy.
The woman looked up at Bernie. Something about her face, turned up like that, made an impression on him. I can feel those impressions happening in Bernie, but what they are exactly is something I find out later or not at all.
“No, it was a good joke,” she said, agreeing with me. I was already liking her, and now I liked her more. “I feel so stupid.”
“Why?” said Bernie.
The woman’s eyes shifted the way human eyes sometimes do when the mind is delivering news. “Because I thought I was in control of the situation and I wasn’t,” she said. “The usual story.”
“Not your fault,” he said. “We’re professionals when it comes to following and being followed.”
She shot me a quick glance. “You meaning you and Chet?” she said.
Bernie smiled. “That’s us,” he said. “Chet and Bernie, in that order.” He handed her our card, the one with the flowers. Instead of flowers, why not the .38 Special? But the card was designed by Suzie, back when she and Bernie were together, so that was that. As the ponytail woman took the card, sunlight flashed on a diamond ring on one of her fingers. I knew diamond rings from an unfortunate incident where a former client’s diamond ring had gotten buried somewhere in her garden, the precise location proving a bit elusive. Buried things have a way of changing positions underground, one of those things you learn in this business. But the point was that the ponytail woman’s ring was bigger than the one I’d—the one that had somehow gone missing, I hoped not forever. Meanwhile, Bernie, too, noticed the ring, and the ponytail woman noticed him noticing it and quickly withdrew her hand and laid it in her lap.
“And your name, if you don’t mind me asking?” Bernie said.
“I—I’m not ready,” she said. She glanced around. “Is there somewhere we can talk?”
Bernie gestured toward the park. There were some benches nearby, all empty. Bench-sitters often chowed down on snacks—or even a whole meal!—meaning under benches is good territory if scraps are an interest of yours. I was already leaning that way when the woman shook her head.
“Somewhere private,” she said.
“We could go to our place,” said Bernie.
“Oh no,” the woman said. “Isn’t there somewhere where no one…” She went silent.
“Who are you afraid of?” Bernie said.
“I didn’t say I was afraid of anyone.”
Bernie nodded. He has many nods, meaning all sorts of things. This particular nod—just a tiny movement, eyes with an inward look—meant he wasn’t buying it.
“How about you come with us?” he said. “We can just drive around and talk.”
She glanced back at the Porsche. “Where will I sit?”
“In front, of course,” Bernie said. “Chet’ll be happy on the shelf in back.”
Was … was there some other Chet suddenly in the picture? What a strange thought! There was only one Chet, and that one Chet, I knew for a fact, would not be happy on the shelf, not now, not yesterday, not tomorrow or whatever other days were out there.
The woman got out of her car and turned toward the Porsche. By that time, I was around to her side—to greet her, you might say. She sort of bumped into me, a gentle bump. How anxious she was! I nuzzled against her. Don’t ask me why.
She looked down at me, her eyes big and oh so blue. Then she touched my head, her hand a little unsteady.
“Hop in, um, ah…,” Bernie said.
“Mavis.” She climbed in, only to find that I was already in the shotgun seat myself! How the hell had that happened? I had no memory whatsoever of getting in the car. Life was full of surprises, most of them very nice. And here was another: Mavis squeezed past and took her rightful place on the little shelf without a word of complaint. I was liking her more and more, and gave her one of my friendliest looks, showing pretty much all my teeth.
Bernie sat in the driver’s seat. “Mavis what?” he said.
At that moment, Mavis noticed something on the floor. She picked it up: a small rectangle—about the size of a bumper sticker—with writing on it. We already had a Max’s Memphis Ribs bumper sticker on the car, and this one on the floor didn’t look nearly as interesting, lacking a picture of ribs glistening on a hot grill. But this new bumper sticker was a big problem. How had it gotten into the car? I’m in charge of security, and that means I track every single thing in the car, coming and going, and I had no memory of this new bumper sticker.
Mavis didn’t look happy about it either. Her eyes narrowed and then filled with fear. The smell of her fear filled the car, and very quickly. She gazed—almost in horror—at the back of Bernie’s head.
Copyright © 2021 by Pas de Deux