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 Danville at night glows and shouts like a ten dollar carnival after all the children have been dragged home to their teddy bears, the roundabout on Main Street a tilt-a-whirl full of lights and velocity. It’s a strange city, strange to me and strange to itself—full of surprises both cruel and kind. Unlike most guys in my profession, Lady Luck always seems to be on my shoulder at the ring toss. But there’s always someone who has to lose, it seems.

Detective Pinky Garcia, a junior PI, comes staggering through my door at six in the morning, while I’m half a sip deep into my morning cup. His hand on the door leaves damp streaks down the black emblazoned letters of my name, like agonized commas. He’s soaking, trailing streams from his trench coat, as he coughs and collapses onto my carpet. I move before I completely understand what’s happened. What is Pinky doing in my office? Why does he look like a rat that got caught in a drainage system? I get a hand underneath his chin and feel for his vitals.

The water is clammy, but his skin feels like it’s at the beginning drop of a fever. My gut is telling me that this isn’t an innocent accident, not with the way he came barging into my office like that, but I swallow down the detective instincts and pull him into the chair across from my desk. There’s still some hot water in the kettle. I pour a second cup of oolong and push it into his hands, while his teeth chatter chatter chatter. It takes a minute, but I’m patient. I sit down in my own chair, and I wait for him to explain.

In a stutter that’s only exacerbated by his chattering teeth, Pinky tells me about his night. Yesterday he was contacted by a client who wanted her ex-husband investigated, claiming that he had stolen something from her that she had been entitled to retain in the divorce. Some kind of statue. Lawn ornament. Well, Pinky didn’t usually get theft cases, and it seemed like a good way to catch a metaphorical pat on the head from Monogram, who doesn’t often pay much attention to the small time players in his own agency. I’m sympathetic to the problem. I really wish he’d pay a little more attention to someone else and a little less to me, sometimes.

In any case, Pinky tells me, the investigation started off pretty standard, with the target hanging around some shady clubs and the like, but last night it got weird. There was some kind of exchange, in the darkness of the docks, a handoff that reeked of more than harbor salt. The target seemed spooked. I’m reading between the lines here, but I suspect this was about the time Pinky tipped him off.

The target led him across town after that, across the botanical gardens and over Water Street bridge, where Pinky lost visual on him just before reaching the zenith of the bridge. He pauses there. I’ve got the feeling there’s something he’s not telling me, about what happened at the bridge, but there’s not much I can do about it if he doesn’t want to tell me. So, he says, he took a wrong step—and found himself snapped up tight in some kind of rubber restraint. Like car tires, he tells me.

Doofenshmirtz. I’m jumping to conclusions, of course, but the moment Pinky says that, my head is full of Doofenshmirtz—his glittering dress, his hand-sewn pockets, his sooty driving gloves. Weird traps sound just like him. My heart pounds.

“A, after that,” Pinky is saying, “I flo-floated for a while, I think I wuh-was smaller than the t, t, trap. Worked myself out.”

I reach out and lay a hand over Pinky’s hand, on the handle of the cup. He looks miserable, but it could have been much worse. He’s a capable detective. I give him a reassuring smile.

He tries for a smile back, but his anxious teeth make it difficult for him. “I—” he trails off, and I know it has nothing to do with his speech impediment. There’s a different kind of nervous in his eyes, an uneasiness I haven’t seen there before. “P-P-Perry, you know I—I trust you, you’re the only one a guy can really t-trust in this city.”

I pull my hand back. Wherever this is going, I don’t like it.

He slides his hand underneath his oversized coat. He’s a small man, made even smaller by the yards of canvas dwarfing him. He pulls out a paper-wrapped package, peeling apart the edges to reveal the peaked cap of a bizarre statuette. I’ve lived in America my whole life, but I’ve seen lawn gnomes before. This one has all the classical grace of a museum piece, matte black from head to ceramic toe, and all the old world ungainliness of a Grimm’s Brothers woodcut. Looking at it fills me with the same unease that a particularly strange clown at the carnival might—a back-to-the-tent-wall, take-your-nephew’s-hands kind of unease.

“It’s wa-what my c-c-client described,” Pinky says, eyes flickering towards the door to my office like lightning skittering from cloud to cloud. “But I d-don’t think it was h-hers.”

What he’s asking me, without coming out and asking me, is whether I’ll hide this for him until it becomes clear what’s actually going on. He’s going to go to ground, as soon as he leaves here—I doubt I’ll hear from him for at least a week, maybe more if it takes that long. He’s a competent detective, but he’s got a family of his own to think of. And maybe he’s not thinking about it this way, but if he gives me that piece of hot ceramic—if I let him give it to me—it becomes my problem once and for all. There’s no way I can leave this riddle uninvestigated.

It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t your case to begin with; when someone throws your friend into the river, you’re supposed to do something about it.

I accept the bundle of headaches and watch Pinky slink away, still shivering.

 

Maybe it’s wishful thinking to suspect that Heinz Doofenshmirtz is involved in this mess. Dr. D and I have unfinished history, the kind that ends with a kiss and twenty of the mafia’s burliest thugs bearing down on one troublesome private detective. As I catch the railing of a trolley car passing through down-town, I flip open my wallet. The card he gave me is still there. The club he works at is still there. Of course I went looking for him, after all the business with the ambush was over, but wherever that zeppelin of his was headed, it must have been intent on making a long trip of it.

The trolley takes a sharp left turn into my side of town, and I clutch at my hat with the same hand that’s holding my wallet. The wind is picking up—these cars are so much faster now that my nephews have been tinkering with them, and I’m proud but I’m also having more trouble hitching rides lately. The calling card in the pocket gives a wriggle, and then it pops out entirely, swirling away in the wake of the zipping trolley car.

I stare at the white speck until it isn’t a speck at all anymore. It’s—probably for the best, Monogram wouldn’t like it if he knew I was holding onto a memento like that, and it’s not very professional mooning over a piece of cardstock like that, but—

I can’t help but feel like I just lost something priceless.

The trolley drops me back off at the office, just in time for our receptionist to catch me at the door. He gets a hand around my elbow and whips me around into the coat room, and then lets out a pitiful wheeze as my other arm flattens his throat. Reflex—I reel my arm back in and try not to look too sheepish while he’s coughing and rubbing at his neck.

“Hhnnk,” Carl says.

I pat him on the shoulder until he gets his breath back underneath him.

“Detective—” he coughs again, “—Perry, you have a visitor.”

I blink at him a couple of times. There wasn’t any need to whip me off into a coat closet like a secret mistress on the upper east side just for a client.

“It’s Doctor Doofenshmirtz,” Carl says.

Doctor D! My dame, my unclosed case, my old nemesis. He is involved, and he’s here.

In the alley where we last met, his lips against the corner of my mouth burned like hot steam from the devil’s own tea kettle, gone in the flash of an instant with nothing to remember them by but scalded skin. Whatever he’s up to now, he won’t find it easy with me on the case.

“Um,” Carl says, “Detective? Detective, are you alright? I know he got you pretty good earlier this year, but don’t worry, I’ll get the rest of the agency—”

I wave off the suggestion urgently. No one else needs to get involved in this, whatever it is. Doofenshmirtz is my case, and I can’t help the rush of proprietary feeling that sweeps through me at the first thought of bringing anyone else from the agency in on it.

“No?” Carl gives me an uneasy look, magnified by his coke bottle glasses, but Carl is a good kid—almost a friend, for all that I’ve never seen him outside of work—and he knows when I’m being serious. “Alright…” he says, “…but at the first sound of trouble, I’m calling for help.”

I nod gratefully and go to leave, but he catches me one more time by the sleeve.

“Um,” he says. “You haven’t seen Detective Garcia, have you? He didn’t report in for work today. No one has seen him since he took that case for that woman a couple days ago.”

A spooked detective can go to ground like a team of moles in a dog pen. Pinky’s probably half way to Ecatapec by now, if he’s taken a mind to it. I shake my head, offering Carl my empty palms. He buys it. I don’t like lying to coworkers, but in this business I’ve found that you can’t rely too heavily on anyone else when the wire is against the bone. What they don’t know can’t trip me up.

At my door, I take a deep breath and then I throw it open, dropping into a defensive stance that’s ready for absolutely anything.

Heinz Doofenshmirtz freezes over my desk, one of my framed photos in his gloved hands. It drops an inch. I dash across the floor and catch the photo as it slips out of his half-mechanical grip, hugging it close to my chest.

“Uh, heh,” he says, wriggling his fingers nervously. “Sorry about… that.”

I shoot him a warning look and lay the picture face down on my desk, pointedly. If he’s going to get my boys involved, he’s crossing a line that I won’t stand for. Doesn’t matter how captivating I found being held captive by him. I’ll take him out of the game. But he doesn’t seem bothered by the warning, so either he doesn’t know what I mean or he wasn’t thinking about it in the first place.

He’s wearing those pearlescent clip-on disks again, the ones from the night club show. I wonder if he just forgot to take them off, or if he put them on specifically to meet me.

“Is your office getting more cluttered?” he asks me, peering around my very neat shelves. Aside from a number of new Lady Devonshire paperbacks, all precisely organized, I don’t know what he’s talking about. Oh, and the case files. My work load doesn’t ever seem to break.

I sit down behind my desk, crossing my arms.

“Right,” he says, and he drops into the chair across from me. “So, uh, long time no see?”

I think my expression makes it perfectly clear what I think of that opener.

“Yeeeaah,” he says, “I know, that’s my bad. I told Pnorm to make a getaway and he took us all the way to Casablanca. You do not want to know what a hassle it is getting back out of that city.”

I tap my watch.

He frowns, wrinkling his beaky nose. “Testy much? I just sat down. What happened to good old fashioned small talk?”

I pop the top drawer of my desk and lift a pair of handcuffs with one finger, letting them glitter in the afternoon sunlight. Doofenshmirtz swallows audibly.

Of course I can’t actually arrest him, not even a citizen’s arrest. Technically he hasn’t done anything illegal that I can prove in court, there’s no warrant out on him, and even if I wanted to put him away forever, in this town it would never take. It doesn’t mean I couldn’t make things a bit uncomfortable for him if necessary.

“Look, there’s no need for that,” Doofenshmirtz says, “we’re all friends here! I came to you because I trust you, Detective Perry. I know you’re a guy of your word.”

I drop the cuffs back into the drawer and slide it closed.

Doofenshmirtz leans forward, practically draping himself over my desk. “I’ve got this missing heirloom thing,” he says, tracing one finger over the stamped date on my open case file. I snap the thing closed.

“It’s not worth muuuuch,” he sing-songs, “it’s just a little thing. Sentimental, y’know?”

My gut is still telling me that that the man from the bridge is the same as the man in front of me now. The gnome, black enamel and uncanny, looms large in my memory. I nod slowly, mind racing.

“Do you think you could help me find it? I know you don’t usually do lost items, but maybe for old times’ sake? And I know who took it!”

That gets my attention. If he knows Pinky already, things are about to get much more complicated. I gesture for him to go on, leaning a little closer myself.

“Shouldn’t be too hard to find, not for you,” he says, digging in his wallet until he finds the right photo, worn at the corners. As he rifles through the pockets I catch sight of familiar white cardstock, the black ink emblem in the corner a three-toed flipper. My card. He kept my card.

“My ex wife,” he says, “Charlene.”

From the photo, above the shoulders of a tiny girl, the handsome face of Charlene Doofenshmirtz gives me a knowing look.

 

Wherever Pinky Garcia is right now, I’m sure he knows the answers to some questions I’d dearly like to ask him. I come home from the office in such a whirl of them that I almost don’t notice the tail on me. It’s not subtle, but I don’t mind him knowing where I live. It’s no secret.

There’s a couple of police thugs waiting at my door, but they’re probably not related to the tail—that’s not how the boys in blue operate in this town. I give them a little flick of a wave as I come around the corner. They don’t return the gesture.

“Perry Fletcher,” the one on the left says. I’ve never seen him before.

I nod. It says as much on my mail slot.

“We’ve got some questions for you,” says the one on the right. I know him. He’s an old friend from the holding tank down at central. Smith, or Anderson, or something.

I shrug and stop in front of them, waiting for somebody to get to the point.

“You gonna let us in?” Andersmith says, scowling like a bulldog with a mean streak.

I lean a hip against the hallway wall and cross my arms.

“It doesn’t matter,” Andersmith’s partner says, sighing as he goes for his notebook. Surprising. I’ve never known any of the Chief’s boys to cut a break for anybody darker than about medium beige. And heaven help you if you’re a mute with an attitude problem.

The partner hands me the notebook. He says, “You know anything about the disappearance of one Pablo Garcia, member of your agency?”

My eyes narrow at him. Putting aside the fact that Pinky’s only been gone two days at maximum, the police haven’t yet taken interest in a missing person’s case where the victim wasn’t a Mr. Scott or Bridges or something like that. And anyways, there’s a significant subset of cops in this town who’d like to see the whole IAWACA floating at the bottom of the Danville River.

No, I write.

“You sure?” Andersmith says. “Your families used to be pretty close, we hear. You used to spend a lotta time at his place, we hear.”

If ur accusing me of smthng, I write, pls accuse outright

“We hear Pablo is Mrs. Garcia-Shapiro’s second husband,” Andersmith goes on, still not actually making an accusation, “women like that—”

I scrape an underline beneath the previous line and smack the notebook into his broad chest. I’m not going to stand here and listen to these men insult one of the kindest women I’ve ever known, not for anything. If they want to drag me back for obstruction of justice, well, it wouldn’t be the first time. It doesn’t scare me.

I push past them and close the door behind me with a firm click. I should probably get a telegram over to the Flynn-Fletchers, in case I need bail in the next couple days. I hate to call on them like that, to get them involved in business that isn’t theirs, but I promised Lawrence a long time ago that I’d come to him first.

I met the Flynn-Fletchers after I came back from the war, in the cells of central holding. I’d only just got into the snooping business, and I was finding out quickly that a private detective with my coloring wasn’t welcome anywhere. Lawrence had been down at the station to bail out his neighbor’s husband, two tiny sons in tow. With his posh accent and mild mannerisms, Lawrence had a way with law officers that even officers themselves didn’t quite understand. They had come for Pinky, but the boys took one look at me and, I’ll never know why, but they just knew. I remember I smiled at them. I think I waved. They looked like good kids, the kind of kids that see what adults are too busy to really see. I just wanted them to feel less afraid, but I guess they weren’t afraid of anything. Still aren’t, really, even when they ought to be.

Lawrence didn’t ask questions. He paid my bail, and when the cops gave him a hard time about it he said I was his brother, and whether they believed him or not—I’m sure they didn’t—that was the end of that. I went home with them. I lived with them for a while, for a couple years, and they were good years too.

I came into a family pretty late in life, but that’s alright. Better late than never.

My apartment looks subtly out of order. Chairs not quite pushed in, paintings hanging just a little crooked—the place is barely big enough to hold me and a stove, but in a way that makes it easier to tell when things have been moved. I sigh, and I hang my coat on the hook. This is why I don’t live with the Flynn-Fletchers anymore. I couldn’t live with myself if one of them got caught in the crossfire.

There’s a faint perfume in the air, which probably wouldn’t be noticeable if this place didn’t have the ventilation of a subterranean tomb. It smells of something expensive but subtle, the kind of thing you expect from a woman people call Mademoiselle. Well, whoever it was, they didn’t take anything, which means they didn’t find what they were looking for. I don’t doubt that it comes back to the gnome, one way or another.

Where does this convoluted drama originate? With Dr. D, my old nemesis, or with his mysterious ex-wife, Charlene? But what about the hand-off the night that Pinky was pushed off the bridge, and my tail earlier today? There’s more than two players here, I can feel it. There’s empty spaces at the center of the puzzle.

I start with the obvious piece, the woman I’ve been hired to investigate. It’s me who has the gnome, of course, but that doesn’t mean there’s not something to be learned from digging around Charlene’s place. I write up a couple of telegraph messages and drop them off on my way to check out the ritzy house in the nicer side of town that the ex-Mrs. Doofenshmirtz keeps. I get some suspicious looks hopping off the trolley, but it’s not hard to make yourself look unobtrusively like hired help with the aid of a couple solid props. With a chimney sweeper over my shoulder, I can go most places nearly invisibly.

I ring the doorbell a couple of times. It’s nearly six, and I wouldn’t expect the place to be empty. It’s not Charlene who gets the door, though—sharper and taller, but still perfectly recognizable from Dr. D’s photograph, Charlene’s daughter peers out at me over the threshold.

“I don’t think we called for a chimney sweep,” she says, scanning me over with one quick but thorough look.

I shake my head, and flourish a little coupon for her to examine. I don’t mind doing some work to make the cover story more believable. People say the strangest things to the help sometimes.

She takes the coupon with a little humming noise, and she says, “Wait here. I’ll get mom.”

She leaves the door cracked. On the little breeze that slips through in her wake, I catch the scent of something expensive and subtle, the kind of thing you expect from a woman people call Mademoiselle. So that’s how it is, then. I set my tools aside and pull my hat back on, as I wait for Charlene to appear. Let’s make this an honest interview, one player to another, and cut the subterfuge. Or some of it, at least.

Charlene takes one look at me, hat and all, and her lips quirk up into a knowing half-smile. “Detective,” she says. “Why don’t you come in?”

It’s a very nice house, full of ornaments that the eye nearly slides over, each calculated for the perfect mixture of unassuming and rich. Between my time around Lawrence’s business and my years of tracking down stolen objects, I’m certain that I can spot at least three true antiques in the foyer alone. Charlene does well for herself. In the living room, I take a seat on a settee that is quite probably a 17th century French original, and I watch her as she lifts the crystal brandy decanter from the shelf.

“I can imagine why you’re here,” she says, “although you work much quicker than I expected!”

She offers me a glass. I know better than to take it but, in truth, I do have a taste for the finer things, and that brandy looks like the real deal. I sip at it as she folds herself gracefully into an arm-chair.

“I know Heinz went to see you,” she says. “I’m sure he thinks I’ve taken the statue back into my possession. I’m sure you’ve been asked to reacquire it. But I don’t have it, you see.”

 I watch her carefully. There’s no mistaking the gentle certainty of a woman with a flawless poker face, but in this case it’s pretty safe to say that she means it.

“How much is Heinz offering you?” she asks me. “It can’t be much. He’s dreadful with money, always has been. I remember once he spent his entire month’s alimony on some crackpot automaton, and Vanessa said… oh, but I go on.”

Heinz actually hasn’t offered me anything. I expect he’ll try to double cross me if I do turn something up for him. I saw the “dirty double-crosser” card in his wallet while he was looking for Charlene’s photo.

At my silence, Charlene says, “Whatever it is, I would more than happily triple it if you would come over to my side. The object is rightfully mine, in any case—or at least as much mine as it is anyone’s.”

I raise an eyebrow at that. Somehow I truly doubt it.

“I found it in Casablanca earlier this year,” Charlene tells me. “I’m the only one in this silly farce who even knows its real value. Roddenstein and my ex-husband are opportunists, that’s all. The acquisition of rare items is my business, Detective, and I’ve been looking for this one in particular for seventeen years. If anyone has a right to the object, it must be me.”

Casablanca. The catching-sieve of the world. Dr. D was there too, until recently, and probably this Roddenstein, whoever he is. From what I know of Casablanca, I doubt Charlene came by anything there honestly.

“Do consider my offer, Detective. You won’t find anything searching after me, but if you were to ally with me instead… Well, it would certainly profit you. I’m prepared to offer you a significant percentage of the object’s resale value.”

I slip a notepad from my coat and write out, What is the object?

“They haven’t told you?”

I shake my head.

“Then maybe I’m the only one who knows,” Charlene muses. “And what one person knows is a lot more valuable than something multiple people know. Sorry, Detective, but I’ll keep my secrets and you can keep yours.”

I set my glass down and stand.

“Really?” she says, “That’s where you’re drawing the line?”

I tip my hat.

I’ve got no intention of helping Charlene, regardless of what she does or doesn’t tell me. If she’d like to keep her secrets, I don’t mind too much.

“I suppose I’ll see you around,” Charlene says, standing as well.

I’m certain she will.

 

I find Doofenshmirtz in my office again the next day, wringing his gloved hands by the window. I like the way the venetian blinds cast stripes of light over him, like the coloring of a wild cat. I don’t like that he’s alone in my office again.

I close the door loudly.

“What did you find out?” he demands, practically vaulting the desk to get to me. “Where’s she hiding it?”

I shake my head no.

“No, you didn’t find anything out, or no, she’s not hiding it?”

I indicate the second option.

“Well if she doesn’t have it, then—” his eyes go comically wide, and he snaps his mechanical fingers with a faint twang. “Rodney.”

I lean back against the edge of my desk, watching the wheels visibly turning in his head. The gnome isn’t his, and it isn’t Charlene’s either. She stole it from someone else, and Dr. D stole it from her. I don’t see that either of them ought to get their hands on it, one way or another. But how does Roddenstein fit into this?

I fish out the notepad from earlier and tap the same question I asked Charlene. What is the object?

“Huh?” Doofenshmirtz says. “Oh, it’s a gnome. Sorry, did I forget to mention that part?”

I tap what again.

Doofenshmirtz purses his lips, beating some obscure rhythm on the side of one leg. “Well, it’s sooort of like a fairy tale. Back in Drusselstein, which is where I was born—you remember that part right?—they used to tell stories about the Gemalten Gnome,” he says, in the same wondrous sing-song that Linda used to say “cave of wonders” with, in her bedtime stories.

I cross my arms.

“No no,” he says, “it’s a real story, cross my heart. They say back in the middle ages, Drusslestein used to be a wealthy and prosperous land—it’s, uh, it’s kind of ironic if you think about it nowadays, actually. Anyhow, back then, a lot of the other kingdoms were like, hey, get a load of these guys, they’ve got so much, I dunno, barley or whatever it is medieval people went gaga for back then, we should invade and get a slice of that pie. So the king of Drusselstein had the rarest and most precious treasure in the kingdom sealed up inside a gnome, to hide it from the invaders. Ironically, the army got turned around at one end of the giant mill crank and never actually made it to the treasury, but the wagon that was carrying the gnome got mixed up into the invasion’s entourage and it was neeeever seen again.”

This is what all the trouble is about? A medieval fairy tale?

“Of course I was the one who told Charlene about it,” Doofenshmirtz grumbles, “and she wants to act like she’s some kind of an expert, just because she did all the leg work and the investigation and the bribery. If it’s supposed to go to anybody it’s supposed to go to me, I mean, it’s my country’s story.”

Not an impressive pitch.

Doofenshmirtz goes on muttering to himself, but I tune it out. What to do with the gnome, then, if it doesn’t really belong to anyone? I can’t exactly return it to its original owner. And if I leave the situation between the thieves alone at this point, someone is probably going to get thrown in the river for keeps this time. If I do my job for no other reason, it’s to stop webs of petty chaos like these from endangering innocent bystanders.

I guess I could just give the gnome to Dr. D, and let him hand it off to some old world collector far away from my city. But that would be letting him profit off his nefarious deeds, and deep down I think I’ve already decided that it’s my job to see that Heinz Doofenshmirtz gets what he deserves.

There’s a hand waving in my face. I push it away and scowl up at my client, who doesn’t seem at all bothered by my glare.

“Wanna get lunch?” he says, like he’s said it a couple times already without my noticing.

I lean to look around behind him. The clock tells me it’s about time for most people to be thinking about lunch, and the clear sky tells me it’s going to be a beautiful day for a walk up to the Chinese place at the top of the hill. Doofenshmirtz looks hopeful. I’ve been out with him once before, and I know for a fact that he’s a babbler, a terrible tipper, and a man who will inevitably manage to tick off at least one person in any room where he stands for more than ten minutes.

I nod, and I reach for my hat.

On the walk to lunch, Doofenshmirtz tells me about the maple syrup smuggling ring he was involved with before the last war, up at the Canadian border. At lunch, he tells me more than I ever wanted to know about the textile strength of oyster spit. It’s unbelievable how much this man has managed to do in forty-seven years, and without a penny to show for any of it. Between the soup and the entrée, I manage to get the discussion onto the topic of Charlene. Directing a conversation with Dr. D is about as easy as herding a stampede—you can get him going, but you can’t do much about the specific path he takes.

“Doomed by a puppet,” he says, sourly, as I crunch on the last of my fried noodles. “You’d think she could at least wait until we were off stage to ask for the divorce.”

I’m a little bit terrified by the specifics of this story, actually. It takes place in Hong Kong, and that’s all I plan to pass along. Suffice to say it might have ended with puppets, but it certainly didn’t stop at them.

“So anyways at that point,” he carries on, “I had to find my own way out of the country. But the joke’s on her, ‘cause I took her seat on the steam ship and sailed right on out of there.”

I give him a surprised look. Most of his stories end with being run out of town on a rail, or at least with major catastrophe.

“We were married for six years,” Doofenshmirtz says. “I may not know what her birthday is, or what kind of seafood she likes at a restaurant, but I definitely know which smugglers she has on her payroll.”

Smugglers. Suddenly another piece of the gnome-shaped puzzle clicks. Charlene, by whatever underhanded means, arranges for the statue to be shipped out of Casablanca to her home in America. Doofenshmirtz, who is in the city as well, intercepts the shipment somewhere along the way. He, in turn, has the package stolen by Pinky, who falls into the river before it can be retrieved off his person.

We are eating out on the sidewalk, in the shade of a balcony that lets strips of glittering light fall between the slats. I haven’t been noticing how nice it is, but as I catch sight of a couple familiar bulks coming over the hill, I can feel exactly how much pleasantness evaporates right up off the table. Andersmith and his partner make a beeline for us.

Doofenshmirtz follows my eye. “Ugh,” he says, “Johnny Law. What do you guys want?”

Andersmith eyes my client in a way that makes my hand reflexively tighten on my chopsticks. “What an odd couple,” he says, glancing down to the wood creaking in my grip. “You know, some folks judge a man by the company he keeps, Detective Fletcher. You running with the gunsel now?”

I shoot a look at Doofenshmirtz, who’s going red in the cheeks. I shouldn’t be surprised that the police know him already—they’re on opposite legs of the tripod that keeps the mafia standing in this town, and at some point they’re bound to meet at the middle. Doesn’t seem like it’s been a friendly meeting place, either.

“We got a tip,” Andersmith goes on, “saying you aided in the disappearance of Pablo Garcia, who skipped town on account of some shady business with a street mugging.”

I drop my cheek into my hand, already exhausted with this whole investigation. First he’s murdered, now he’s a criminal—they could at least stick to one story if they wanted to give me a hard time so badly.

“Heeeey,” Doofenshmirtz says, “what a coincidence, I was just mugged the other night! Man, are you guys falling down on the job or what?”

His expression is one hundred percent genuine. I’m not sure how good of a liar he actually is—with Charlene it’s easy to tell that I can’t trust her half as far as I can throw her, but with Dr. D I’m just getting a mish mash of conflicting signals. When he’s feeling guilty, I can practically sense it through a brick wall. But when he skims casually over the truth… well, I’ve fallen for it once already, haven’t I?

If he knows that Pinky was the one who snagged the gnome off him, then he ought to know I have it. But he hired me to search Charlene’s place, instead of just searching mine himself.

I scribble on the back of the bill and dangle the message from two fingers. Come back with a warrant, it says.

Andersmith’s partner puts a restraining hand on his shoulder, wincing slightly. “There’s no need for that,” he tells me, “we just want to know what it is that you know.”

From my coat pocket, I flip over one of my business cards and show him the rate per hour. He frowns.

“You tell ‘em, Detective Perry,” Doofenshmirtz says, stuffing a wonton into his mouth. “They can line up and pay like any other sap in this town.”

I give him a withering look. He hasn’t even broached the topic of paying me.

 

As I hop off the trolley at the edge of my neighborhood, I spy the familiar flash of a trench coat and a low-slung brim. My tail is back. I take a deliberate left turn into the heart of the neighborhood and watch him slink after, down the alley and into the lobby of another apartment building. As the door swings closed behind me, I dash to the back exit and circle around the side. There he is, hulking on the stoop of the building, trying to decide whether he should follow me inside and risk being cornered. Judicious, but he picked the wrong time to start being clever.

I slide along the edge of the façade, unseen, and spin a new chamber into place in my revolver. The quiet click is warning enough. My stalker turns, slowly, revealing a face as feminine as it is clearly inanimate. A mechanical woman. Remarkable—and suspicious.

“Oh,” she says, in an artificial and alien cadence, “I appear to be spotted.”

Charlene mentioned an automaton. Is this one Doofenshmirtz’s work? Any man who can build such a delicate and complex prosthetic for himself is surely capable of making bigger and stranger. There’s something clunky about her, though, something a little bit off. And besides, his methods lean more towards barging than stalking.

“Hello, Detective,” she says. “Lovely weather we are having, isn’t it?”

I gesture to her, the obvious question on my face.

“My name is Chloe,” the automaton obliges. “That is not necessary, Detective, I know who you are.”

I pause, with one of my business cards half out of my pocket, and then drop it back in. Force of habit.

“It seems we are at an impasse,” Chloe says. “I am also armed, I am sorry to inform you.”

Ah, there’s the glint of metal in one of her oversized sleeves. I shrug, slowly, letting my pistol hang from one finger. I’m not interested in shooting anyone, not even someone who runs on what smells like diesel fuel.

There’s a faint whirr and clank from somewhere inside of her. She says, “We are not going to engage in a quick draw?”

I shake my head. Wrong genre.

“Then what do we do now?” she asks.

I pull out my notepad and write for her, I want 2 see ur boss.

“He will not like that.”

I make a twirling motion, pointing down at the street. I’ll deal with that problem when I get to it.

Chloe whirr-clanks again, and then she offers me her hand. The fingers are blocky and single jointed, and they glint in the fading sunlight. Hesitating, I take it.

Chloe pulls me into an embrace like the bar of the tilt-a-whirl at the carnival and launches into the street, her feet skating over the pavement fast enough to reduce the lines in the cement of the sidewalk to an endless smooth blur. My heart tries to eject itself through my mouth.

By the time we come to a stop in the north side, I have completely lost track of how we got here, and I can feel my hair is scrambled like an egg with the shell left in. Very gently, Chloe peels me off of her coat and sets me on the ground, which I am never going to take for granted again. The house in front of us is a neat little German style cottage, with a bizarrely mismatched koi pond. Chloe knocks on the door.

The one who answers the door isn’t Doofenshmirtz. That’s both a kind of relief and more confusing. This one is an even odder looking man, bespectacled and bald, and possessed of a suspicious squint that makes me think he can’t be very popular at parties.

“Chloe,” he says, “what is the meaning of this?

“Doctor Von Roddenstein,” Chloe says, “I have brought you the Detective.”

“I said follow him, not bring him here, you fuming pile of junk.” Rodney sneers like a man who has practiced sneering to an art form. Over his shoulder, I catch a glimpse of a table set for an old fashioned tea service. “You might as well come in,” he tells me, in the long suffering tones of a man who believes himself to be the only genius among philistines.

I step into the house, and immediately I get a head full of diesel and smoke. He and Dr. D must be two of a kind, whatever that kind is exactly.

“It’s impossible to find good help these days,” Rodney opines, shutting the door on Chloe entirely. “No, I don’t need a card. I know who you are, Detective.”

I drop the card again.

“I suppose you must be working for Charlene at this point,” Rodney says, taking a seat at the tea table. “I know you visited her earlier.”

I shake my head.

“No? You can’t possibly still be working for Dr. Slouchy.

I shake my head again.

There’s a tray of cookies on Rodney’s side of the table, which he makes no effort to offer me. “Neither of them,” he concludes, munching on a gingerbread man. “So then, you’ve made the intelligent decision, and you’re here to ally with me?”

Again, no.

Rodney scowls. “Well then whose side are you on?”

I tap my chest, just above my heart.

“Your own, hmm? I guess I should respect that,” he says. There’s a click, and then the glitter of a pistol just above the tablecloth. “I should,” he adds, “but I don’t really care.”

The second time in less than an hour that I’ve been on the business end of a gun. I’m used to it, but it’s still annoying. I purse my lips.

“That gnome is mine,” Rodney tells me. “I stole it fair and square! And then some thug on the street tries to muscle me out of it? No sir, Not Aloyse Everheart Elizabeth Otto Wolfgang Gary Cooper Von Roddenstein!”

Thug? I stretch the points of this mystery out for examination. If Doofenshmirtz got it straight from the smuggler, then for Rodney to have been mugged in the street, that would mean…

Chloe is plenty big enough to overpower a man like Doofenshmirtz. She could have made the hand off to Rodney, just in time for Pinky to catch him alone on the bridge.

“So who has it now?” Rodney says. “Charlene? Or Doofy?”

I indicate neither.

“Inconceivable,” Rodney snaps. “I know that little thug was on Charlene’s payroll!”

I hold up a hand. This is going to be complicated. I slide my notepad to the middle of the table, and carefully write out, 21:00 tonight, my place. I can put u in contact w/ the 1 who has it.

Rodney narrows his eyes, but he slowly folds away the gun. “Well now I know you don’t have it,” he remarks, mostly to himself, “or you would have negotiated.”

I hold out a hand to him, over the tea pot at the middle of the table. Rodney eyes it for a long moment, but he does finally shake it—as briefly as possible, and then drops it immediately.

“Don’t try anything funny,” he warns me, as he pushes away from the table. “Nothing good ever happens to those who meddle in the affairs of a Von Roddenstein.”

I roll my eyes at his back.

I catch a cab back across town, pausing at the telegraph station on my way, and arrive back home at last. Night is falling, its boots half way up the doorstep of the evening, and the higher windows of my building still glint with the reflection of a sun those of us down on the ground can no longer see. I duck out of the broad world and into the secretive white halls of my home.

Monty Monogram is waiting for me inside, as I hang my coat up on the hook. He grins at me when I tip my hat to him. In his arms is the paper bundle that’s been sending me up and down this city for the last two days, looking precisely the way I remember it.

“I told myself I wouldn’t peek,” he says, spinning the thing between his hands. “But you gotta let me see what’s in there. It’s killing me.”

I make a carry on motion, as I put the kettle on the stove. I’ve got a hunch to look into, and I can do it just as easily with Monty as without him. He’s a good kid, and someday he’ll make a good detective, if that’s really what he wants. Maybe he’ll see something I don’t.

There’s three hours until the players reach the stage, and I still have to decide what I’m going to do about it all.

 

Doofenshmirtz arrives first, as expected. I find him at the door, absently leaning against the buzzer, my worn business card in his fingers. He jumps when I open it.

“Oh, mm, hello?” he says, shoving the card into one pocket. “I guess I got the directions right after all. I stopped to ask this guy around midtown and I swear you’ve never heard a more ridiculous accent, really, some people are just unbelievable. Are you making coffee?”

I shake my head and indicate the tin of oolong.

“Huh,” he says, “not very hard boiled of you, Detective Perry.”

I huff and shove a mug into his hands anyways. He takes a seat at my table, eyeing the room critically. I don’t know why just looking at him sitting in my living room makes my heart beat like Chloe has dragged me off on her tilt-a-whirl ride again. Any second now he’s going to say something nitpicky about the size of the place or the crowding on the table tops, or complain about the neighborhood, and I’ll still be seeing flowers. He’s annoying, but I like him somehow.

I can’t help it. When I think about giving him what he deserves—I don’t know if it’s a kiss or a kick in the teeth or maybe both—there goes my heart all over again.

“I thought it’d be tidier in here,” he sniffs, “and bigger too. And your neighbor gave me a nasty look on the way in, do you know who she was? She’s on my list now big time.”

Unbelievable. I am in so much trouble with this one.

There’s a ring at the door, long short long short, and I open it up to find Charlene, professionally early. Her eyes glitter underneath her veiled hat.

“I should have wondered,” she says, with a modest little smile, “what was in it for you, really.”

I step aside and allow her to slip past me, closing the door quietly behind. Dr. D gives her a sour look, while I pour her a cup of tea as well. She takes two sugars, just like her ex-husband. I guess some people would be a little uneasy, noticing a thing like that, but somehow everything about Charlene worries me except for that.

“Heinz,” she says, leaning against my window. “How did the travel treat you?”

Dr. D snorts. “Like you don’t know,” he mutters into his drink.

I leave them to it at the sound of impatient knocking, rapid knuckles against my door. Rodney waits outside, the hulking shape of Chloe at his shoulder. He’s dressed up for the occasion. I nod personably to the automaton as her master bustles past me in a sulk that appears to be his permanent disposition.

Well,” Rodney says, “I’d say it’s a pleasure to see you both, except that it most certainly is not.”

“Dr. Von Roddenstein,” Charlene says, almost warmly, “I believe I still owe you something for your help in Casablanca.”

“I believe you do,” he replies. “Detective, I’ll have one of those drinks as well.”

Pointedly, I drop a sugar cube into my own drink and settle back against the counter. After a moment of fuming, Rodney slumps into the remaining chair sans drink. Doofenshmirtz is squinting around him at the entry way, and after a second of dawning comprehension, he stabs a finger in Chloe’s direction.

“Her! She’s the one who mugged me! I’d recognize those big meaty grabbers anywhere,” he says, miming a pair of claws. “You knocked me off, Rodney! And you used my invention to do it!”

“I assure you,” Rodney says, twirling a hand, “Chloe is one hundred percent Von Roddenstein.”

“Yeah, sure,” Doofenshmirtz says. “You just stole my idea for Pnorm and put a wig on it, you hack.”

“I improved you idea for Pnorm. Inquire with the patent office,” Rodney says. He examines his nails, uninterested. “Edison did it, and so did I.”

“Gentlemen,” Charlene interrupts. She is watching me, through the netting of her veil. “I think all of that can wait until we know what, exactly, the detective has gathered us here to discuss.”

One by one, they turn to me. I reach into the cabinet beneath the sink and lift up the most shrouded figure of the Gemalten Gnome, black enamel peeking out from beneath the gray smear of newspaper. Behind me, I hear three simultaneous clicks.

I look up to find three different muzzles trained on me—Rodney’s pistol and Charlene’s luger, and Doofenshmirtz’s oddly modified little gun with the copper tubing down its back. Sighing, I gesture to the lot of them. Surely they’re bright enough to realize what will happen if one of them shoots. Charlene, of course, is the first to lower her gun. She’s reached the same conclusion as I have.

You had it,” Doofenshmirtz says, visibly bewildered. “You had it the whole time? But why didn’t you say anything?”

“Yes,” Rodney says, “Why not? You could have offered it to any one of us already.”

Charlene hasn’t looked away from me for a moment. “So you mean to auction it between us,” she concludes, her handsome features again in a perfect poker face. “That’s a risky proposition detective.”

I shake my head. From the nest of papers I lift up the gnome and lay it down on the counter, where everyone can see it. There is a glassier sheen to the bottom of the statue, a thickness of enamel that bubbles slightly in a ring at the center, where my finger is currently tapping.

Charlene is the first to get it. She gasps slightly, as I dig out the chisel that Monty left behind for me. With a couple taps, the glossy finish at the foot of the statue shatters away in a rain of grey glass. Underneath, there is a hole.

“It’s been opened?” Doofenshmirtz says, leaning over the table for a better look. “After I stole it?”

“No,” Charlene says, slowly, “before. Before Casablanca.”

I set down the chisel and watch them.

You!” Rodney shrieks, whirling on Charlene, “This is your fault! You and your informants! You tipped them off in Africa and they got the drop on us!”

Charlene sucks her teeth. “I’m not so sure,” she says.

Dr. D has gotten up from his seat and slid over to the counter. I wave a hand at the gnome, inviting him to examine it. He takes it in his hands, weighing it and tapping it, flipping over shards of glass where they lie beside my kitchen knives. His expression is almost comically serious, his tongue pinned between his teeth.

“You know I never really thought there was anything inside of it,” he tells me, squinting up into the darkness inside the hollow body. “I figured it was, like, full of good stinklekrampen or something. Loaded with medieval juju. Just knowing how the old country is, I mean.”

Underneath the enamel, it seems to be made of some kind of ancient hardwood. I don’t claim to know anything about ancient antiquities, but judging from the eerie look of the thing—I’m inclined to agree with Dr. D. It’s just possible that Charlene was a bit too modern and shrewd for her own good. I’m still not certain that the thing of legend even properly existed.

I pause at the sound of the buzzer going off again. Who could that be? Rodney and Charlene are busy pointing fingers at each other, Doofenshmirtz is standing next to me, holding a statue up to his ear, and Chloe is waiting at the edge of the room for someone to give her a directive. There’s no one left.

I slip gingerly through the hubbub and get the door. Outside, there’s Andersmith and his less enthusiastic partner, both of them looking like trouble in their coats and scowls.

“We got a warrant,” the partner says, pretty neutrally.

“So you better open up,” Andersmith says, with a smirk that isn’t neutral at all.

I sigh, but the law is the law. I let them in.

Inside, the argument has devolved into a three way finger pointing, accusation-slinging ruckus. Andersmith’s partner clears his throat, causing all of them to freeze on the spot—Dr. D pauses with the pointy cap of the statue jabbing into Rodney’s chest. It’s a very strange tableau.

“Having a party, Detective?” Andersmith asks.

I nod, slowly.

“Hey,” his partner says, “aren’t you the lady what filed the stolen object report?”

Oh no, this is exactly the kind of outside complication I didn’t want to get mixed up in. The burning baton is up in the air now, and there’s no telling where it’s going to land. If she pins me with it, I don’t know that even Lawrence will be able to talk me out of the clink.

Charlene looks from the officer to the statuette in her ex-husband’s hand, and for a moment I’m half convinced she’s about the shoot them both for their trouble. But all she does is smile, blandly, and give a little wave. “Yes,” she says, “that was me.”

Slowly but surely, everyone’s attention drifts to land on the gnome which Doofenshmirtz is still holding.

“Is this the dingus?” the officer asks her.

Charlene meets my eye. I’ve given her a lot of trouble these last couple days, and I think it’s pretty clear that I’ve got a soft spot for her ex—she’s plenty clever enough to have noticed, and I haven’t been trying to hide it. On the other hand, in the last couple days Rodney and Dr. D both tried to cheat her out of her hard, if unlawful, work.

She winks. “This is the thing,” she says, plucking the gnome out of Doofenshmirtz’s grip. “It’s been a lot of trouble for such a little thing, hasn’t it?”

“Well that’s all fine and good,” Andersmith says, clearly eager to get back to his own investigation. “But we have a warrant to search these premises for anything connected to the disappearance of one Detective Pablo Garcia, so you folks had better shove off.”

“Garcia,” Charlene says, with a studious expression that is almost certainly insincere, “isn’t he your partner, Detective?”

I nod.

“Yes,” Charlene says, “of course. I hired him to track this little oddity down a few days ago.” She sets the gnome down on the table, flicking lint from its shiny cap, and turns back to the cops. “And as you can see, officers, here the oddity is. Detective Garcia isn’t missing, gentlemen, he’s just been working.”

“He ought to have washed up somewhere by now,” Rodney mutters under his breath, and receives an elbow to the sternum for his troubles.

Andersmith scowls. “How come he ain’t been home then, miss?”

Charlene shrugs delicately. “Perhaps he has a lady on the side,” she suggests. “In any case, I wouldn’t worry about it. I’m sure he’ll turn up tomorrow, just as fresh and smart as he was the other day.”

The cops exchange a look. It seems like the possibility of a lady on the side is giving them some pause.

“Look, we still got a warrant,” Andersmith says, at last. “So we’re gonna search the place, like it or not. You folks can step outside if you like.”

“I really should be going, anyway,” Charlene says. She turns to Rodney, one dark brow quirked. “I believe we have unfinished business in Casablanca, don’t we?”

“You can’t be serious.”

“On the contrary,” Charlene says, adjusting the veil of her hat, “I’m very serious. Perhaps you will be too, to the tune of fifteen percent, whatever it is we recover. I know a man who’s good with a glassblower. We might stop and ask him a few friendly questions.”

“Twenty percent,” Rodney says, stalking after her.

“I don’t think so,” Charlene replies.

Chloe whirrs to life, as the two entrepreneurs spill out into the hall, negotiating all the way. I tip my hat to her. Wherever they all end up, I hope they keep the sand out of her gears.

At last, at the end of it all, it’s just me and Dr. D standing outside my little apartment with our backs against the wall. He’s sipping at his tea, looking mildly disgruntled by everything.

“Sooo,” he says.

I glance back at him. I’m surprised he’s still here—the wile is thwarted, the day is saved, and there’s no profit left here to be had. Except for the cup of tea, I’m not sure what it is he’s hanging around for.

“There’s, uh,” he starts, “there’s supposed to be a floor show at the club. Since it’s, y’know, Friday and all. Personally I don’t think it’s all it’s cracked up to be, but I could use a drink after… that. You wanna tag along?”

There goes my heart again, like an automobile shifting up into a racer’s gear. I’d like to kiss him. I’d like to catch him by the hip and dip him, a tango-deep dip, the way they do in those clubs the Methodists won’t let their ladies visit, and I’d like to kiss him. He’s a crook and a weasel, and I don’t doubt I’ve not seen the last of his troublemaking, but I guess he’s my trouble, now. For whatever that’s worth.

I button up my coat and gently lift the mostly empty cup from his hands. I leave it on the floor, beside the door, and I take his hand.

Maybe I will kiss him. It depends on what kind of music they’re playing down at the dance hall.