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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Heart of Barkness

A Chet & Bernie Mystery (Volume 9)

Spencer Quinn

Forge Books



“Red-letter day, Chet,” said Sergeant Rick Torres, our buddy at the Valley PD Missing Persons Department. “In the car.”

Red-letter day was a mystery to me, and maybe red is, too. Bernie says I can’t be trusted when it comes to red, something I’ve never understood. I knew fire hydrants were red, for example, knew that as well as I know my own name. Which is Chet, in case you missed it, right up there off the jump. I also know “in the car,” and never need to be asked twice. Or even once. Rick opened the passenger-side door of the black-and-white. I hopped in, sat up nice and tall, totally alert, ready for anything. Was my tongue hanging out? Possibly. I got most of it stuffed back in. We have standards, me and Bernie, just one of the reasons that the Little Detective Agency is so successful, except for the finances part. It’s called the Little Detective Agency on account of Bernie’s last name being Little, but we’re equal partners, Bernie handling the gunplay and the so-therefores and me bringing other things to the table. Maybe we’ll get to my teeth a little later.

Meanwhile Rick stepped on the gas and we sped away from his place, where I’d been staying for what seemed like a long time. That was a worrisome thought. I tend to stay away from worrisome thoughts, like to spend my time in the here and now. At the moment in the here and now we had the possibility of cat sightings, and also food trucks. We’re pals with every food truck driver in the Valley, me and Bernie. He says it’s the best human invention since music. My choice would have been Slim Jims, but if Bernie says music, then that’s that. And the truth is we’re music lovers, big-time. What’s better than blasting across the desert in the Porsche, sound cranked up to the max? Roy Eldridge’s trumpet on “If You Were Mine”? It does things to my ears you wouldn’t believe, maybe on account of your own ears, which are mostly about decoration. No offense.

Rick glanced over at me. He has a thick and bushy mustache that sometimes catches a crumb or two. Once I made a sort of play for those crumbs, perhaps not my best idea. No crumbs in evidence now, but I could always hope, and I always do.

“In a good mood, huh, big guy?” Rick’s eyes made one of those tiny shifts that means a human just had an idea. “You sense what’s happening somehow? Is that possible?”

What was this? Of course I sensed what was happening! We were going for a ride in Rick’s squad car and would end up wherever we were headed. What could be more obvious? I gave him a careful look. Was he having problems at home? Not that I knew of. Surely that little incident with the steak tips couldn’t still be on his mind.

I was thinking about steak tips, not that little incident—more or less an accident, and one of the happy kind—but steak tips in general, when we pulled up in front of Valley Hospital. No surprise. Rick and I came to visit Bernie just about every day. First he’d been in a special room where they put people who weren’t doing so well. That whole problem was on account of what happened at the end of the stolen saguaro case, a few confusing moments that had included the bad guys getting what they had coming to them, and then suddenly from out of nowhere—when it was all over!—Bernie taking that horrible blow to the head. I tried not to think about how he’d fallen, so slowly—like he came oh-so-close to staying on his feet—except sometimes my mind would think about it anyway. But less and less, because after a while Bernie had shifted to another room, not as special, and started moving around with a walker. A walker that happened to get me too excited, a small issue I was still working on when Bernie didn’t need it anymore. Lately we’d been taking little strolls up and down the halls of the hospital. Was that in the cards today? I sprang out of the cruiser the instant Rick opened my door.

And what was this? Bernie, not inside the hospital but standing on the curb, duffel bag at his feet? Had I ever seen anything so wonderful?

“Chet!” Rick said, or possibly shouted. “Come back here! Sit! Stay!”

But I just couldn’t. I flew across the parking lot—yes, not touching the pavement, or hardly—and jumped into Bernie’s arms, only remembering in midair that I’m a hundred-plus pounder, so that maybe this wasn’t such a good …

But it was! Because Bernie caught me, like he always did, or maybe not quite exactly, what with a slight stagger, and a loud grunt that someone who didn’t know him better might have taken for a cry of pain.

“Oh, my god!” said Dr. Bethea, who I hadn’t noticed standing there beside us, me sort of in Bernie’s arms, giving his face a nice lick, and him laughing. What a lovely sound! “Are you all right?”

“Couldn’t be better,” Bernie said, which was just what I wanted to hear. I eased myself back down and stood close to him, close as close can be.

“Whew,” the doc said. “But at least we know you’re back to normal—if in fact you used to be able to catch Chet like that.”

“Not every time,” Bernie said.

Dr. Bethea laughed, a surprisingly big laugh for such a small woman. Her glossy hair, curly and black, shook a little, giving off a smell like fresh rain. Normally the doc had a nice treat for me, tucked away in one of the pockets of her white coat, but today she did not, as anyone—although probably not you—could tell from one tiny sniff. No worries. I still liked her just as much as before. No one’s perfect—except Bernie, goes without mentioning.

Right now he was gazing down at her. “I don’t know what to say,” he told her. He put his hand over his heart, then held it out. “Thank you, Doc.”

Dr. Bethea smiled. They shook hands. “Now that you’re discharged, you can call me Eliza.”

“Eliza,” Bernie said. Their eyes met, then unmet, then met again. What was that all about? You’re asking the wrong dude.

Rick drove us home. Home is our place on Mesquite Road, the best street in the Valley. On either side live the nicest neighbors anyone could ask for, except for our neighbor on the fence side, Mr. Heydrich. He’s not a fan of the nation within the nation—which is what Bernie calls me and my kind—and also collects Nazi memorabilia, whatever that may be. On the other side, the driveway side, live Mr. and Mrs. Parsons—an old couple maybe not doing too well—and Iggy. Iggy’s my best pal. The fun we used to have, in the days before the electric fence salesman paid them a visit! That adventure with the FedEx truck and all those boxes of Christmas hams—flimsy boxes, as it had turned out! But the Parsons could never get the electric fence to work, so now Iggy didn’t come out much. As Rick turned into our driveway, I looked for him in their floor-to-ceiling window by the door. No Iggy.

We got out. For a moment I thought Bernie and Rick were lining up for some sort of hug, but they ended up bumping fists.

“Do I owe you a cut?” Rick said.

“Of what?” said Bernie.

“There was an office pool on whether this day would ever happen. I won a hundred bucks.”

“Ten percent,” said Bernie, which I’m sure just shows you how shrewd he is when it comes to money. If only finances had something to do with money, we’d have been all set, our financing having been derailed by unsold Hawaiian pants, filling our self-storage in South Pedroia to the roof, and Bolivian tin futures, which I’d actually never seen, but no time to go into that now.

Rick paid Bernie whatever ten percent was—we were raking it in already!—and drove off. Bernie unlocked our door.

“Home,” he said. “Home is the hunter.”

Whoa. I stopped right there, one paw already in the doorway. So hunting was finally in the picture? I knew all about hunting from TV, those hunting shows so exciting that I sometimes had to take a time-out or two. We’d even been invited on hunting trips by our buddy Bobby “Bwana” Buonaconti, but Bernie always said no. Why? Bernie’s a crack shot. You should see him shooting dimes out of the air! Bwana himself is not a crack shot, as he proved on that confusing day we found out he wasn’t actually a buddy but more of a perp, meaning I’d had to grab him by the pant leg, grabbing perps by the pant leg being a big part of my job at the Little Detective Agency.

“What’s the holdup, big guy?” said Bernie, standing in the hall.

Wasn’t it obvious? Hunting was an outdoor activity, so why go in the house?

“Don’t you want to be home?”

I did! I did want to be home! But what about hunting? I started in on a quick back-and-forth thing in the doorway, not so easy in such a small space. Bernie reached out and laid his hand on the back of my neck, very gently.

“Been hard on you, huh?”

What was he talking about? I had no idea. All I knew was that his eyes were moist. Just a bit: Bernie was no crier. I pressed myself against his leg. Bernie’s a strong dude, hardly lost his balance at all.

“You’re a good boy,” he said, and scratched between my ears as only he can do, just right. I rose up and looked him in the eye, my paws on his shoulders.

Bernie’s eyes cleared up and he laughed. “Let’s get back to normal life.”

Sounded good to me! Was hunting part of normal life? I was still wondering about that when Bernie closed the door. With us on the inside. Meaning hunting was not in the picture after all. So I had no more thoughts about it—I can shut down my thinking just like that! Sometimes it doesn’t even wait for me and shuts down all by itself. Who has it better than me?

Meanwhile I was already busy sniffing my way around the house. You enter someplace you haven’t been in a while and you sniff around. That’s basic. I started in the hall, two rhythms happening at once, the sniff-sniff-sniff and the trot-trot. Mongo Santamaria, whoever he might be—possibly a perp, so I hope he looks good in orange, and the truth is I still haven’t seen even a single human who does—has nothing on me, Bernie sometimes says. I ramped up my sniff-sniff-sniff trot-trot ba-boom ba-bing in the front hall and through the living room, topping out as I darted into Charlie’s room, the mattress bare on account of Charlie living mostly with Leda, his mom, and her husband, Malcolm, with the long, skinny toes, and into our bedroom—at one time mine, Bernie’s, and Leda’s, then just Bernie and Leda’s, and finally Bernie’s and mine—and into the kitchen, where I smelled no food at all, an unusual and bothersome development, and finally into the office, with its elephant-pattern rug. I’d dealt with a real elephant once, name of Peanut, perhaps a story for another day, but the crazy thing was that whenever I sniffed the elephant-pattern rug I got a whiff of her, even though Peanut had never been in the house, not even once. What was that all about? I had no idea, but was busy sniff-sniffing at the rug when Bernie came in, a glass of bourbon in hand. The bourbon and elephant scents mixed together in a very pleasant way, hard to describe.

“What’s so interesting?” Bernie said. Then came something that had never happened before, kind of a shock. He set his glass on the desk, walked over, and … could it really be? Bernie got down on all fours and … whoa, stop right there! From out of nowhere I suddenly understood four, having never gone past two in my whole life. One, two, four! I’d cracked the code at last! And that wasn’t even the most astonishing thing we had going on in the office, because there was Bernie, down on all fours and sniff-sniff-sniffing the rug, just like me! So much went zooming through my mind, all way too fast to catch hold of, but one thing stuck: we were going to be even better than before! Wow! I barely heard Bernie say, “Don’t smell a thing.” In fact, I might have imagined it.

Not long after that, we were outside. A beautiful day, nice and warm but not too hot, and the sky clear and bluer than it had ever been. Bernie stripped the tarp off our ride and we hopped in.

Our ride’s an old Porsche, not the one that went off the cliff or the other one that got blown up, but our new one, which happened to be the oldest one of all, and the only one with the martini glasses pattern on the front fenders. A lovely touch, added by our buddy Nixon Panero at Nixon’s Championship Autobody, all on his own as I recall but a total success in the end, except for how we maybe got pulled over out on the highway more than before.

Copyright © 2019 by Pas de Deux