A Fistful of Collars ONE
Heard you drove another one off a cliff,” said Nixon Panero. He spat a thin brown stream of chewing tobacco into an empty paint can, or maybe not that empty. Yellow paint, the yellow of egg yolks, now with a brown swirl in the middle: there’s all kinds of beauty in life.
“You heard wrong,” said Bernie.
Uh-oh. Bernie was looking at Nixon in an irritated sort of way. Wasn’t Nixon our buddy? True, Nixon’s eyes were too close together, even for a human, but he was one of the best mechanics in the Valley according to Bernie, and if Bernie said so, then that was that, and besides, Nixon was also one of our top sources on the street, even though we once put him away for a year or so. Or maybe because of it! Anything’s possible with perps, believe me. We’ve taken down lots, me and my partner, Bernie. That’s what we do at the Little Detective Agency. He’s Bernie Little. I’m Chet, pure and simple.
Sidling on over toward Nixon, just in case backsliding was on his mind? The right move at a moment like this, no question, so I sidled, keeping my eyes on his hands the whole time. That’s
where the trouble usually comes from with humans; their feet are too slow to bother worrying about. Nixon’s big hands—fingers all oil-stained and as big as sausages—were hanging by his sides, doing nothing much. I hadn’t had a good sausage in ages, or even a bad one, not that there’s such a thing as a bad sausage, and was trying my hardest to actually remember the last time, when I became aware that Bernie was speaking. When Bernie talks, I listen and listen hard.
“. . . three sticks of dynamite, maybe four—still waiting on forensics,” he said.
“Somebody blew up the Porsche?” said Nixon.
“Kind of different from me driving it off a cliff,” Bernie said, giving Nixon a hard stare. Loved seeing that hard stare of Bernie’s: we’ve made hay with it, let me tell you, although why anyone would want to is a bit of a puzzler, hay being nothing but dried-up grass, of no interest to me at all.
Nixon nodded. “No comparison.” He spat another gob into the paint can; his aim was off the charts.
“Which is why,” Bernie said, “we’re in the market for a new one.”
“A new old one?”
“As old as the last one?” said Nixon. “Or a bit younger, like the one before.”
“Depends,” Bernie said, and he went on with a whole long depends thing which I missed—on account of I’d been listening too hard! How weird was that?
The next thing I knew we were on our way to the yard at the back of Nixon’s Championship Autobody. One of his guys was spray-painting a picture of a curvy woman on a black fender.
“More tit, Ruy,” Nixon said as we went by. “What’s wrong with you?”
Ruy raised his mask. “Sorry, boss.”
We kept going. “Can’t get good help,” Nixon said. “What’s going to happen to this country? We’re competing in the global marketplace.”
“Maybe the big breast thing isn’t as important overseas,” Bernie said.
“Talk sense, Bernie,” Nixon said.
We came to the back of the yard, all fenced in with barbed wire. This was a bad part of town: across the street, some dudes lounged around doing nothing special, never a good sign. Parked by the fence stood two wrecks, one rusted out, the other torched. I’m not great with cars, but I know the shape of Porsches.
“Take your pick,” said Nixon.
“You’re paying me, right?” said Bernie.
“Love your sense of humor,” Nixon said. “I was just mentioning it to the mayor, not two days ago.”
“You’re pals with the mayor?”
“Where do you think he gets the limo serviced?”
“Did you ask him how come he needs to ride around in that damn thing in the first place?”
“Huh?” said Nixon. “He’s the mayor, that’s how come. And anyways I wasn’t talkin’ to him directly. I was talkin’ to his security guy.”
“Yeah. He was the one who actually mentioned your name. But then the mayor slid down the window and we got to talkin’.”
Nixon shrugged. That’s a human move I always watch for. It can mean lots of things. This time? Your call. “Wanted to know if I was named after Nixon. You know—the president.”
“I know,” Bernie said. “And are you?”
“Your parents hated you?”
Nixon gave Bernie a long look, a look I’d seen many times. It meant someone had just realized that Bernie was the smartest human in the room, no news to me. “How’d you know?” Nixon said. “I was the fifth boy. Long about then they were hankerin’ for a girl. But—funny thing—turns out to be a big plus with the mayor.”
“He’s a Tricky Dick fan?” Bernie said.
“A secret fan,” said Nixon. “Just between him and me, what with the election coming up. On account of the name being so—what would you say?”
“Yeah, toxic with most people.”
“You can always change it,” Bernie said.
“Nope,” said Nixon. “It’s part of me.” He took out his dip, bit off another chew. “Maybe someday I’ll invade Cambodia.”
Bernie laughed. “Let’s take a look at these scrap heaps,” he said, and then something else which I missed because of this growling I heard behind me. I turned and there was my old buddy Spike, the scariest junkyard dog I know, and I know plenty, amigo. Spike was part pit bull, part Rottweiler, part unknown, and we got along great: I have lots of unknown in me, too. We’d had a nice tussle or two, me and Spike, including the night Bernie and I took Nixon down, something that maybe rubbed Spike the wrong way. What a barn burner! Although it was a gas station that ended up burning, but just as exciting, maybe more. And as for getting rubbed the wrong way? There’s really no wrong way, in my opinion, only some that are better than others. I’m not fussy.
Spike lumbered up, gave me a bump. Just being friends: Spike was getting on now, that twisted warrior face almost completely
white. I gave him a friendly bump back. He rose up and tried to . . . really? What a crazy idea! I shook him off, rose up myself, and tried to do the same crazy thing! What a time we were having! He shook me off and then we were racing around the yard—not really racing, since Spike was no speedster—nipping at each other and barking our heads off. Did we roll around some in an oily patch? Maybe, but I couldn’t be sure, because all of a sudden Spike had one of those—what were they called? welding torches?—yes, welding torches in his mouth, and I had to have it, so—
Spike and I pulled up, coming to a dead stop.
And glancing back, saw Nixon with his hand at his mouth, finger and thumb between his lips, and looking real mad for some reason. Oh, no. He was one of those humans who knew how to make that earsplitting whistle sound. Please, not again.
“What the hell gets into you?” Bernie said.
We were rolling in the van, this beat-up van we use for surveillance but was our only ride at the moment. I lay curled up on the shotgun seat, waiting for the pain in my ears to go away. What gets into me? Was that the question? I thought about it. Sometimes I think better with my eyes closed, so I closed them.
When I awoke, I was back to feeling tip-top, so tip-top I knew I must have done some world-class thinking. I sat up straight, stuck my head out the window. Ah, the Valley. No place like it. The Valley goes on forever in all directions, and those smells! You haven’t smelled till you’ve smelled the Valley. Hot rubber, hot pavement, hot sauce, hot charcoal ash, hot everything! Yes, even hot ice cream. Plus all kinds of grease—deep-fry grease, pizza
grease, burrito grease, unwashed human skin grease, and human hair grease—not to mention the grease on my tail at this very moment. Where had that come from? I tried to remember, but not hard. Back to the lovely smells of the Valley, all of them with something in common, namely the dry dusty scent of the desert. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Bernie glanced over at me. “Smell anything, big guy?”
He stuck his own head out the window and took a few sniffs.
“I don’t,” he said.
That Bernie! The best human sense of humor in the business, bar none. This had to be one of his little jokes, what with the whole river of smells flowing by and us smack in the middle of it. A nice refreshing breeze sprang up behind me so I turned to check it out—I can probably turn my head a bit farther around than you, no offense—and there was my greasy tail, wagging away. I just love Bernie.
We pulled into a strip mall. We’ve got strip malls out the yingyang in the Valley, just one more thing that makes it great. This particular strip mall was where Suzie Sanchez worked. Suzie’s a reporter for the Valley Tribune, and also Bernie’s girlfriend. If he had to have a girlfriend, then Suzie was a great choice. Compared to Leda, for example, Bernie’s ex-wife and mother of his kid, Charlie, who we miss a lot, seeing as he’s only around some weekends, plus every second Christmas and Thanksgiving, a complicated human arrangement that turned out to mean having even less of Charlie. Thanksgiving’s my favorite holiday and Halloween’s the worst, but no time to get into that now.
We entered the Tribune office, walking past the workstations, all empty, and there was Suzie at the back, fingers going tac-tac-tac on the keyboard, a sound I happened to like. If I had Suzie’s job I’d make that sound twenty-four seven, faster and faster, and
with all my paws in action that would be pretty damn rapid. Kind of a strange thought; probably better if it never happens again.
Some humans have the sort of brain where you can feel it at work, like a powerful, pulsing muscle. Suzie was one of those, but at the same time, she had a big warm smile and black eyes that shone like the countertops in our kitchen after Bernie polishes them, which doesn’t happen often. Only when we got real close did she look up.
Then came a surprise. Suzie wasn’t smiling, and her eyes, shining for a moment, lost that sparkle almost right away.
Bernie was smiling, though, that real big one, always so nice to see.
“Hey, Suzie,” he said. “Lookin’ good.”
“Liar,” she said, sweeping back a lock of her dark hair. Hey! What was that? A line on Suzie’s forehead? And another? Those were new, unless my memory was playing tricks on me, something memories can do, Bernie says, although I don’t remember ever experiencing that personally.
“How’d the car thing go?” Suzie said.
“Found a beauty,” Bernie said.
We had? News to me, but I got most of my news from Bernie.
Suzie pressed a button and her screen went dark. “Bernie?” she said. “Got a moment?”
“More than a moment. How about we take you to lunch?”
Suzie bit her lip, another one of those human things I look for. In the nation within the nation, as Bernie sometimes calls me and my kind, we don’t bite our lips, except by accident, when a bit of lip gets caught on a tooth, say. Human lip biting sends a message, a message I’d never gotten from Suzie before.
“I’m slammed today, Bernie,” she said. “Let’s just go out for a little walk.”
“A walk? It’s ninety-seven out there and just getting started.”
“A short walk.”
Bernie’s smile faded and was gone. “Something on your mind?”
Suzie nodded, her eyes not meeting his. I got a sudden urge to chew on something; almost anything would do.
“We can talk here,” Bernie said.
Suzie glanced around. Still just us in the office, but she said, “Outside’s better.”
“Okeydoke,” said Bernie. Okeydoke is a way Bernie has of saying yes, but only when we’re on the job, so what was up with that?
We went outside. There was some confusion at the door, but I ended up going out first. We walked toward a line of skinny, dusty trees that separated this strip mall from the next one. An old picnic table, weathered and lopsided, stood in the shade.
With picnic tables, it usually works like this: humans sit on the benches, facing the table, and I settle down underneath, waiting to get lucky, picnic food usually being pretty messy. But none of that happened now. No food, for one thing. Bernie sort of leaned against the table at a funny angle; Suzie sat at the end of one of the benches, but facing out, legs crossed and then uncrossed; I circled around. What was this? None of us could get comfortable? I started panting a bit.
“I have some news.”
“You’re a newswoman.”
Suzie’s lips turned upward in maybe the quickest, smallest smile I’d ever seen. Then she nodded. “I’ve got a job offer.”
“That’s all?” said Bernie.
“What do you mean?”
“I thought maybe you’d met somebody.”
“Or Dylan was back in the picture.”
“Dylan?” Suzie said. “Oh, Bernie.” She held out her hand. Bernie took it in his.
Dylan McKnight back in the picture? He was Suzie’s boyfriend long ago, a perp who’d done a stretch at Northern State Correctional, and was now where? LA? Hard to keep all the details straight, but the best one—that time I’d driven him up a tree—was still so clear in my mind!
“Let me guess,” said Bernie. “The Trib’s making you managing editor.”
She laughed, one of those tiny laughs that’s just a little jet of air from the nose. “That would never happen,” Suzie says. “It’s another reporting job, but somewhere else.”
“Not the Clarion?” Bernie said.
Suzie shook her head.
“Whew,” said Bernie. “Not sure how I’d handle that. They won’t stop until every square inch of the whole state’s totally developed.”
“It’s the Post, Bernie.”
Bernie has very expressive eyebrows, one of his best features, although they’re all so good, it’s hard to choose. Right now, his eyebrows were sort of trying to meet in the middle, a puzzled look you didn’t often see on Bernie’s face. “The Post?” he said.
“The Washington Post,” said Suzie.
Bernie let go of Suzie’s hand. “Oh,” he said.
Something was up—I could just tell. But what?
“I’m so torn,” Suzie said. “And the irony is it’s all due to that series I wrote about the Big Bear case.”
Whoa. Big Bear Wilderness Camp? The sheriff? Those deputies? That judge? The mama bear? All of them breaking rocks in the hot sun by now, or very soon. Except for that mama bear, of course. Let’s not get started on her.
“Don’t be torn,” Bernie said. “You deserve it.”
“There’s no deserving, Bernie. Not in this business.”
“I wouldn’t know about that,” Bernie said. “But—” He went silent.
“But what?” said Suzie.
Bernie took a deep breath. “Could you turn it down, walk away, and then never think about it again? The what-ifs, what-might-have-beens, all that?”
Suzie went quiet. Then she took a deep breath, too. “I love you,” she said.
Bernie’s lips moved, just the slightest, like he was about to say something, but he did not.
“I’ve been checking flights,” Suzie said. “They’re cheap if you book far enough in advance. Weekends would be way more doable than you’d think.”
“So,” said Bernie, his voice getting kind of thick in a strange way, like there was something in his throat, “it’s all good.”
What was this? I’d been gnawing away at one of the legs of the picnic table? And it didn’t even feel that great? Not bad, exactly, just more like . . . nothing. I stopped.