by William Michaelian
The clues were piling up. Still, at the end of the day, there were more questions than answers. Why did Carla say she could play the guitar when she couldnít? Where did Victor get his money? Who in the world was ďThe ToadĒ? And where did the bottles of bourbon keep coming from? Were they gifts from my old girl, Nancy, as I had originally assumed, or were they someoneís idea of a joke? Meanwhile, every cab driver in town seemed to know more about the case than I did ó a situation I found particularly annoying. As they carted me around the city, they took special pleasure in mentioning facts I had learned only moments prior to flagging them down.
When I got back, I discovered that my office had been ransacked. Instead of tending to business, my secretary, Heather Meade, had been out shopping for lipstick. She apologized for the mess and poured me some bourbon. Any idea who did it? she said. Plenty, I said. But none that I can prove. I swallowed some of my drink. You know, I said, Iíve been thinking. Maybe itís time for a vacation. Heather smiled. Itís always time for a vacation, she said. Where are we going this time? I donít know, I said. Where do you want to go? Heather started to think. I love it when she does that. It seldom comes to anything, but itís a beautiful sight to behold.
How long have you worked for me? I said. Four years, maybe? Five? And in all that time, have I ever once asked you about your personal life? Havenít I regarded your privacy as sacred? Now, listen. I wonít beat around the bush. I think you owe me something ó if not for the way Iíve treated you, then at least on some sort of basic human level. So. Iím going to ask you a question. You donít have to answer right away. In fact, I want you to think it over. Sleep on it. Tell me tomorrow. But Iím warning you. When tomorrow comes, I will be in no mood for games, understand? Good. Now. Before you go, letís have another drink.
Itís like this. Iím tailing Jasper, see, when this big goon jumps out of the alley, see, and starts to work me over. Then, just as the goon is about to rearrange my face, see, I recognize him. Nelson? I say. Crimony, is it you? How ya been? Me and Nelson, see, we go way back. Oh, sorry, Bain, Nelson says, almost didnít recognize ya there. And Nelson picks me up, see, and dusts me off. Watcha after? I ask him then. You on the Demming case? Yeah? Well, hereís a tip for ya. They found Demmingís former lover, Lucy Driscoll, in the river this morning. No, Iím not kidding. She had a string of pearls in her throat ó the ones Demming gave her, not six months ago.
It was raining, the roads were slick, and my stomach was an acid-filled butter churn. When I stumbled into my favorite hangout on Ninety-third, Iíd only meant to dry off and see what my buddy Pete was up to. Big mistake. Soon as I sat down, Pete pours me a beer and brings me a bowl of chili. Grease city, just the way I like it. Pete, I said, you sure know how to treat your customers. A few bites later, even my veins were on fire. Whereís Danny? I said. You seen him? Pete shook his head. How about Lester? I said. He been around? Pete shook his head. Big Mike? Casey? Earl? Polansky? Pete shook his head. Whatís got into you? I said. You in some kind of trouble?
I flipped the light on in the office. I was a little surprised when I saw Carla leaning back in my chair with a glass of bourbon in her hand, but not disappointed. Well, I said. What goes around comes around. She smiled. Or something like that, she said. Drink? Sure, I said. I could use one. Carla filled my glass and topped off her own. Kinda late to be working, isnít it? she said. Is it? I said. Youíre here, arenít you? She fingered her glass. I guess I am at that, she said. What about your guitar? I said. Oh. I left that at home. Ah-ha. Letting the strings cool, eh? Before she could pull away, I grabbed her left hand and looked at her fingertips. Smooth as silk.
If you want, she said, I can take you to him. When? I said. Tonight, if you like. The fingers on Carlaís right hand were as smooth as those on her left. Maybe she played with her teeth, like she said. It wasnít easy, but Iíd seen it done. I donít know, I said. Isnít it getting kind of late? Carla laughed. What happened? she said. Did the big strong detective have a hard day? Only average, I said. Truth is, I was followed. You wouldnít know anything about that, would you? Or about what happened to Lucy Driscoll? You do know about Lucy Driscoll, donít you? Carla nodded. She got what she deserved, she said. That may be, I said. That may be.
The entire room was lined with leather upholstery. The floor, the walls, the ceiling, everything. Finally, a door opened and he emerged, looking every bit like his underworld nickname. Or so I thought. This is Rudy, Carla said. He takes care of the orchids. Rudy studied me with his bulging eyes. The spongy warts on his neck were as big as baseballs. Presently, Rudy withdrew. A minute later, the door opened again. The man who entered was even uglier. This is Bruce, Carla said. He looks after the monkeys. Smells like it, I said. Bruce departed. This is Harold, Carla went on. Heís the chef. I found this a bit disturbing, since Harold smelled worse than Bruce.
We have to go at this logically, I told Heather at the office the following morning. Either ďThe Toad,Ē as heís called, really exists, or he doesnít. If he does, well, fine. He has a nice office. The people who work for him are a little weird, but I can live with that. On the other hand, if he doesnít exist, who knocked off Demming? Heather was rubbing my neck. Same person who took care of Lucy Driscoll? she said. I donít think so, I said. And let me tell you why. No, thatís fine. Donít stop. Iíll need a lot more of that if Iím going to survive this case. Youíre a peach ó you know that, donít you? By the way, what did you decide about yesterday?
Heather showed me the latest bottle of bourbon. Looks like our friend is running out of money, I said, pointing at the cheap label. Still, itíll do. Any message with it? You know, the least this person could do is tack on a little message ó hello, go to hell, something. But to answer your question, Iím thinking of Paris. Have you ever been to Paris, my dear? Heather sat in my lap. I thought you never asked about my personal life, she said. Ah-ha, I said. So you have been. Okay. Thatís fine. We can go somewhere else. What about a nice long train ride through Siberia? That ought to get our minds off work.
The phone rang. Heather picked it up. Uh-huh, she said. Heís right here. Hang on. She gave me the phone. Itís the lieutenant, she said. When she started to get up, I put my free arm around her waist and pulled her back into my lap. Chief, I hollered into the phone, how are you? I was just dialing your number. Hah? No, that turned out to be nothing. Right. Oh, really? Last night, huh? I see. Yeah. Uh-huh. Youíre right. That does change everything. Sure, if you want. This morning? How about we make it one oíclock? Iím beat. Oh. Well, in that case, just give me time to put on a shave, then Iíll be over. Yeah. Iíll meet you there.
Itís Victor, I said. Heís dead. Heather put down the phone. When did it happen? she said. Last night, I said. They found him on his boat. Isnít that interesting? Isnít what interesting, Heather said. Think about it, I said. What do Lucy Driscoll, Victor, and ďThe ToadĒ all have in common? Heather smiled. I donít know, she said. Bad breath? No, besides that. A large discretionary income? No, besides that. A morbid interest in pearls? Say, are you trying to annoy me, or what? Well, you asked. So I did, cupcake. So I did. Water ó thatís what I was thinking. Water? Heather said. Ohhhh. Damn it, I said, youíre gorgeous. Then again, you already knew that, didnít you?
The lieutenant was kneeling over Victorís body when I came onboard. What do you think? he said. Want my professional opinion? I said. Yeah, I want your professional, etcetera. Okay, I said. But first let me check something. I bent down and pried open Victorís mouth. What the hell, Bain? Whatíre you up to, anyway? Never mind, I said. Look. Resting on Victorís swollen tongue was a small toad. When it saw daylight, it blinked twice, then hopped out onto the dead manís chest. That, I said, is the mark of a sick person. The small toad hopped down onto the deck. The lieutenant rolled his eyes in disgust. Donít let it get away, I said. Thatís evidence in a murder case.
Carla was waiting for me at the appointed time. I know who killed Lucy Driscoll, I said. And Victor. And Demming. She smiled seductively. Do you have proof? she said, or is this just another one of your fishing expeditions? I have proof and plenty to spare, I said. Who, then? It was my turn to smile. Thereís something I want to know first, I said. Or rather, itís just something I need to confirm. Oh? What might that be? Itís Bruce, I said. He takes care of more than just the monkeys, doesnít he? Carla took a step back. What do you mean? she said. You know exactly what I mean. I knew it the moment he walked into the room. It was all over his shoes.
The string of pearls found in Lucy Driscollís throat turned out to be fake. That clinched it. When it came to pearls, Demming was an expert. So obviously the person who killed Driscoll had already disposed of Demming and made off with the real pearls. Before Victor was killed, the evidence pointed at him ó or at least so everyone thought. Everyone but me, that is. Because in spite of Victorís professed love of water, fact was, he couldnít swim. And only a good swimmer would have had the nerve to shove fake pearls down a drowned womanís throat. Victorís untimely demise proved my theory. That, and the small toad planted by his killer.
It wasnít me, Carla insisted. All right ó I am ďThe Toad.Ē And you were right about Bruce. He collects tadpoles and raises them. But thereís no crime in that. And I didnít kill anyone. Why the games, then? I said. Why all the pretend? Never mind. Iíll tell you why. You were the one Demming was in love with. Heís the one who bought you the guitar ó although he never heard you play. But how did you feel when the real pearls were stolen? And how did you feel when you found out that youíd been outsmarted by a two-bit monkey trainer? You see, Carla, I know who ďThe ToadĒ really is. But donít worry. Your secret is safe with me.
When I got back to the office, I found Heather packed and ready for our trip to Siberia. Here are the tickets, she said happily. Sit down, I said. Thereís something we need to talk about first. There is? Damn right, there is. Pour me a drink. And while youíre at it, pour yourself one. Heather filled two glasses with bourbon. You think youíre pretty smart, donít you? I said. Well, for once, Iím inclined to agree with you. You did a good job on this case. A really good job. Now. Letís see those pearls. Heather opened her bag and pulled out Demmingís pearls. Beautiful, I said. Just beautiful. Now put them on. She put them on. And smiled.
William Michaelianís newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelianís other books and links to this siteís other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.