"For the love of Mike, Mutt, be reasonable!" – from the Mutt and Jeff comic strip (1907-1983)
So, I bet you already knew this, but I'm the most selfish person on earth. And I'm not talking about sleeping with Tony's prom date. Although, funny story, that came up in conversation recently, right before we opened a self-contained crime scene at the docks. Coincidentally, that was right before I found out a buddy's biggest secret, and that was when I realized I'm the most selfish person on earth. Maybe in history – I'd have to ask Henry.
Let me back up.
Hey, Jeff. It's Mutt. Been a while.
I still have your stupid umbrella with the hole in it. You remember, from Halloween the year we went as Mutt and Jeff and nobody knew who we were supposed to be? Of course you do. I've never told Karen that story, but I think she knows anyhow, because she hasn't thrown it out. And you know how that woman is about spring cleaning – I mean, I'm sure I've bitched about it over the years. (Karen calls it venting, and gives me The Look whenever I use the word "bitched." I figure the kids have heard worse on the playground, and unless they let me start arresting every pottymouth over the age of eight, there's not a damn thing I can do about it. And even if I could, wouldn't Mom just give herself a hernia laughing after what we got up to as kids?)
As I was saying, it started a couple months ago. Well, it really started a lot longer ago than that, but for me it started a couple of months ago. And for much the same reason that I became a cop. It might not have been your fault, but you were the catalyst.
"What did you call me down for, Henry?" Mike's patience was running thin. "No, let me guess. John Doe's liver smelled like onions, indicative of a rare poison found only in the Himalayas, and you need some flatfoot to track down every Yeti-hunter in the city. Am I close?"
Henry didn't even blink.
Mike ground his teeth. On days like this, the only thing more irritating than smug I-solved-it Henry was unruffled I've-seen-it-all Henry.
"Actually, I thought you might want to get away from things upstairs for a bit," said Henry. "I'll be busy out here – why don't you use my office. It's quiet, and there's some rather good brandy in the cabinet if you want some."
Nonplussed, Mike tried to connect the dots. "Huh?"
"I know everyone deals with it in their own way, but…" Henry lowered his voice, even though no one else was around. "Anniversaries are hard."
Mike gaped at him. "How the – there's no way you could know that. Jo doesn't even know that."
Henry gave a sad little smile. "Because the grief is still fresh for her. In time, she'll learn to recognize it in others' faces."
"Like you have," stated Mike.
Henry nodded. "Yes."
"Who'd you lose, then?" Mike challenged, still belligerent.
Henry looked uncomfortable, but he answered. "My mother, my father, and… my wife."
All of Mike's anger drained away in a rush of breath. "I didn't think you were married." Then he grimaced. "Sorry."
Henry acknowledged the apology with a dip of his head. "It was a long time ago, and… not in the official record."
Mike filed that away. "Does Jo know?"
The answer was slow in coming, confirming Mike's suspicions. "Not precisely in those words, no."
"Why the hell not?"
Henry rubbed a hand over his face. "No good can come of comparing old wounds to new."
"So? You know exactly what she's going through, losing a spouse! You could help her, damn it, instead of holing up in here like some medieval monk–"
Henry stiffened. "I am trying to help her, Detective. And you as well, if you would stop interrogating me long enough to listen. But the way in which I dealt with my own grief was neither constructive nor healthy, nor something I am particularly proud of, and I do not wish to share it."
Given his own circumstances, Mike could hardly argue with that. Even Jo didn't know that he'd once had another brother.
"His name was Jeff," Mike found himself saying by way of tacit apology. "He was the youngest. And the shortest. My other brother, Tony, is older but I was always taller. Jeff was… him and me were close, y'know? He tagged along, used to follow me everywhere. My folks called us Mutt and Jeff, after–"
"Yes, I remember the cartoons," murmured Henry.
Mike looked at him oddly but continued. "I was in high school when he died. Jeff was twelve. Just a kid." It still made him so angry to think about it. "He was playing a video game, just sitting on the couch when they drove by. Turns out some gang-banger was hiding out at his grandmother's place next door. Well, you know the story. Drive-by shooting, collateral damage. Police officers came and went, swept up the whole gang." Mike swallowed. "I'll never forget what one officer told me. He said that my little brother didn't die in vain. That, because of him, a lot of people would never get hurt. Of course, that set my mom off, yelling about how no one kept Jeff from getting hurt, but, I dunno. It meant something to me."
Mike's throat closed up. This was why he never talked about Jeff. He couldn't find the right words, and just got choked up, and that didn't help anybody.
But Henry nodded, with such a look of understanding on his face that Mike had to turn away, blinking hard.
"It's why you became a police officer," said Henry with quiet certainty. "Not only to keep other people safe from harm, but also to give death some meaning."
Mike nodded, not trusting his voice.
"I'm told it can help to talk about it. Myself, I've never been a believer in psychotherapy," said Henry. "But after the, ah, recent incident–"
"You mean the skinny dipping?"
Henry pretended to ignore the interruption. "I've had several sessions. I'll grant you that I did not have much choice in the matter, but it's easier than I thought it would be."
"Does it help?"
Henry patted Mike on the shoulder. "Only time will tell."
So I figured, if even Henry saw a shrink – Henry Morgan, who sees nothing wrong with sniffing dead bodies like a dog sniffs butts – then maybe I should look into it.
I never told him, of course, but I did do a little research and made an appointment.
As with anything else involving Henry, even peripherally, I got a little more than I bargained for.
Mike knocked on the frame of the open door and hesitated.
"Come in." The main's voice was soft, mild and unmistakably British. Mike grinned to himself. No wonder Henry didn't mind the guy. "Please, sit."
Mike sat and was nearly swallowed by cushions.
"What brings you here today?"
"Curiosity," admitted Mike.
The man nodded affably. "And old wounds, I expect."
Mike narrowed his eyes. "What makes you say that?"
Dr. Farber chuckled lightly. "Why, everyone has them, and we're all wandering about in search of a cure. Just ask your friend Henry."
Startled, Mike leaned forward. "How did you know–"
"We have a lot in common, Henry and I. You might say we're both students of history."
Mike frowned. "That's not what I asked."
Dr. Farber smiled. The expression sat oddly on his face. "You're not the only one who does his homework, Detective. But you needn't worry. I won't tell him you've come to see me. A man should be allowed some secrets, don't you think?"
Without quite knowing why, Mike found himself cataloging everything about the man – eyes, hair, build, clothes – like he would a suspect. He couldn't put his finger on why, but something about the doctor had him on edge.
"Sorry," said Mike after the silence stretched on too long.
Dr. Farber watched him knowingly. "No need. You're an observer; it's in your nature. And old habits die hard."
There was no reason that comment should have unsettled him. It was something Henry would say. And the ironic twist of the doctor's lip could have been Henry's too – only there was none of the ME's good humor in Farber's eyes.
"Yeah," said Mike. "They do."
I know what you're gonna say. But I'm not suspicious of everyone I meet. There was just something off about that guy. And it was like he was doing it on purpose, letting me catch glimpses of something behind a mask, waiting to see if I could figure it out.
I never told him about you, or about these letters. And I don't write them down anymore, not since the Academy (damn nosy roommates), so there's no chance of him finding out.
But I should have told Henry about my little visit.
The truth is, I wanted to solve whatever this was on my own, without Henry's clever, oddball deductions. But it took me too long to put the pieces together. All that immortal mumbo jumbo with Henry's stalker threw me for a loop. How could that possibly fit in? Even when Farber disappeared, I still didn't get it.
Not until recently, when I saw Henry's face as he stared at a murder weapon in the form of a bloody swastika.
What I saw there wasn't the abstract hatred someone of my generation might feel for the Nazis. No, the look on Henry's face was one I'd seen dozens of times before from victims on the witness stand, confronting the person who'd hurt them. It was the look on my dad's face when he talked about Vietnam. It was the way I figured my face looked whenever I heard about an innocent victim of a drive-by shooting.
The sick horror of recognition. And a very personal anger.
Somehow, somewhere, Henry had met Nazis before. Up close and personal. And they had hurt someone close to him.
I didn't question how at the time. I guess I assumed skinheads or something. And to be fair, I was a little distracted by the gory mess of a shipping container the killer had left behind, and all the stolen art under all that blood.
But then I saw that same look of horrified recognition on Henry's face when he rushed out of the precinct.
"What did you say to him?" demanded Mike.
Lucas stared after his boss. "That I think maybe there really is a zombie Nazi hunter."
Mike's eyebrows rose of their own accord. "And that upset Henry."
"Nooo, not exactly," hedged Lucas. He furtively motioned Mike closer before continuing in a hoarse whisper, "I have proof."
"Really." Mike didn't even try to hide his skepticism.
"Really!" Lucas shoved some papers under Mike's nose. "Here – it's all in the antibodies," he explained excitedly. "Bubonic plague, smallpox, typhoid, scarlet fever, pshaw. That's nothing. The dude who left this sample had antibodies for diseases I've hardly even heard of. I'm talking history book stuff like leprosy, the Antonine plague, diseases that haven't been around for hundreds of years!"
"Yeah, and what did Henry say when you showed him these mythical antibodies?"
Lucas swallowed. "That someone would have to have lived for 2000 years to acquire them."
Against all sense and reason, Mike felt a chill go up his spine. "There's no such thing as immortality," he told Lucas, even as an odd feeling settled in the pit of his stomach. "Or zombie Nazi hunters."
"Probably ran to check on the machines that kicked out those wacky results." Mike feigned disinterest. "What'd you do with the blood sample, anyway?"
Lucas frowned and searched his pockets. "I must have given it to Henry? No, wait, maybe I left it in the lab…" He looked guiltily at Mike. "I'm really sorry, I was just so excited, and a little freaked out, and…"
"Don't worry about it, kid. I'm sure Henry will take care of it. Just don't let it happen again, okay? Chain of evidence is important stuff."
Ruefully Lucas shoved his hands in his pockets. "Yeah. And our only lead is a contaminated sample."
"Cheer up. Maybe it's faulty equipment."
Lucas groaned. "Which means he's gonna make me return everything to factory settings, one machine at a time, and recalibrate until my fingers fall off. It'll take forever."
Mike clapped him on the back. "Guess you'd better get started!"
Lucas sighed with feeling, but headed obediently for the morgue.
Mike tried not to feel too guilty. Better save that for when he stole a sample of Henry's blood.
That turned out to be easier said than done, by the way. Henry is almost pathologically clean. Maybe that makes sense for a medical examiner, but it could be plain old paranoia.
His or mine, you're wondering? You always were a little smartass, Jeff. Must run in the family.
Anyway, I wound up skulking in the alley behind Henry's building waiting for Abe to take out the trash. I'd noticed that Henry had cut himself shaving that morning, and I bet he wasn't paranoid enough to burn his own garbage. (Yet, anyway.)
Yeah, I know. I need to get a life. Just wait – when the boys are a little older, all you'll be hearing about is sports and grades, who did better in what, who skinned his knee worse, how the other parents are all overbearing nutjobs and how the umpire couldn't see a strike if it hit him right between the eyes.
For now, there's Henry. Hey, everybody needs a hobby.
"Whose blood is this?" demanded Lucas, holding up an accusatory sheaf of papers. "It's not the Zombie Nazi Hunter's. The blood type is wrong. The anomalies are still there, just… different." Lucas's eyes widened when Mike fidgeted guiltily. "Ohmygod, it's Henry's, isn't it?"
"What gave you that idea?" Mike's laugh was shaky. He tried again. "C'mon, Lucas, Henry's no zombie. He's perfectly normal… er, not normal, but – oh forget it."
He knew this was a bad idea. He knew it but had gone ahead and done it anyway. For what, the need to be right? The thrill of the chase?
Henry must be rubbing off on him.
"This is Henry's blood," repeated Lucas in an awed whisper. "What does that even mean? Henry's over 200 years old? What are we supposed to do with that?"
Now there was a question Mike could answer. "Nothing. He's still Henry, and he's still our friend. That doesn't change. Got it?"
Lucas looked affronted. "Of course not! I just meant… I have so many questions. But I'd never tell anyone, I swear."
"Not even Jo," warned Mike. "Or Henry," he added as an afterthought.
For the first time in that bizarre conversation, Lucas looked truly gobsmacked. "Why not?"
"Because if Henry had wanted us to know, he would have told us," said Mike, already regretting the whole conversation. "And it's not our secret to tell."
Lucas leveled a disapproving stare worthy of Henry himself. "You shouldn't have done it, then. We shouldn't have… oh, man."
Damned if he wasn't right, but it galled Mike to admit it.
"Still," said Lucas, brightening, "maybe this could be a good thing. I mean, now we can protect him."
Mike frowned. "You lost me."
"Yeah! Henry's not comfortable with technology, but there's all this stuff out there now that could totally compromise his secret identity."
"Henry doesn't have a secret identity," replied Mike automatically.
"How do you know? Or did you follow him and find that out, too?"
Ouch. "What kind of stuff?" asked Mike contritely.
Lucas waved a hand in the air. "Facial recognition software, social media, digitized records, genealogy sites with DNA testing… Endless pitfalls to someone who was probably born before the first electric motor was invented. And we could help."
To be fair, Mike had been thinking somewhat along the same lines, only phrased as Operation: Saving Henry's Ass.
It sounded more altruistic coming from Lucas.
"That's a good idea," admitted Mike. "We'll have to look into that – carefully. For now, you just concentrate on behaving normal… or whatever."
Lucas grinned. "Don't worry, buddy! Henry is used to my 'whatever' by now."
Truer words, Jeff. Truer words. You would've liked Lucas, actually. You had a pretty high "weird" quotient yourself, you know. Of course, compared to Henry's little Time Management Issue (TMI, get it?), even Lucas is positively mainstream.
Speaking of which, I hope you know better than to think I swallowed this hook, line and sinker without more evidence. I mean, the bloodwork was hinky, sure. But that isn't enough to just chuck the laws of time and physics out the window.
The next logical step in my plan (yes, I did have one) was reconnaissance. I tailed Henry and Abe to the Holocaust Museum, which I felt kind of bad about. It seems like too sacred a thing for surveillance – but then I saw Henry slip an extra photograph into an envelope.
I couldn't hear everything he said, but it was something about heritage and… baby pictures?
When they left, I worked my charm on the lady at the front desk. I wove some complicated story about distant relations muddied by marriage and family discord. It was convoluted enough that it sounded real, so she let me take the same box to the table where Henry and Abe had been sitting. It sounds silly, but I could almost feel the weight of all that history.
I opened the box. It struck me then, what I was doing. This went beyond invasion of privacy: I was spying on a friend. Two friends, actually. Whatever this was, Abe was clearly up to his neck in it. And they're good guys. What right did I have to go mucking about in their history – however long it really was?
I'd just about decided to put the box back when a photo caught my eye. It was a smiling baby wrapped in what looked like an Army blanket. Cute kid, but that wasn't what drew my attention. It was the handwriting.
Baby Abraham, 1945
It was Henry's writing. I'd have staked my badge on it.
I thought about having the handwriting analyzed by a pal at the precinct. I thought about bringing the photo to Karen's cousin who's a wizard with Photoshop to see if she could find some reflection, or fingerprint ridging on the lens, or some impossible relic that would prove what I already knew in my gut.
Henry had told me I'd learn to recognize grief in others' faces. But I had seen something else in his face all along, without realizing it: a father's pride.
Abe was Henry's son.
Mike knocked on the door just as Abe was locking up for the night. "Hey, Abe. Your old man home?"
Abe froze for only a moment, but it was confirmation enough. "Heh, good one. Henry acts my age more than I do."
He was good, Mike had to give him that. "Nevermind the alibi. I know."
The two men stared at each other for a minute. "Seriously?"
"Did he tell you?" Abe asked, incredulous.
"Nope." Mike took pity on him. "I figured it out. Sort of."
Abe scratched his head and sighed. "Henry's biking home. You've got twenty minutes to tell me what the hell. I'll get the scotch."
Mike obediently followed Abe upstairs. "Have you lived here all your life?"
"No. We moved around a lot, for obvious reasons." Abe clunked three glasses on the table and poured a generous measure of scotch into each. He paused a moment, and filled the third glass a little higher. "My turn. Does Jo know?"
"Not from me." Mike raised his eyebrows, questioning.
Abe snorted and shook his head. "Then it's just you. Not that I haven't tried to get him to tell her, but Henry's stubborn."
Mike shifted uneasily in his chair. "It's, uh, not just me."
"Let me guess. Lucas?"
"Did Henry tell you about Lucas's zombie Nazi hunter theory? Let's just say that's still alive and kicking."
Finally Abe smiled. "So to speak."
Casting about for something to say, Mike nearly showed Abe what he'd smuggled home in his wallet, when they heard footsteps on the stairs. "Abraham?" Henry's voice echoed in the stairwell.
"Upstairs, Pops," Abe called. He looked at Mike and grimaced. "I'd like to give him a little more warning, but he'd only freak out," he muttered. "Just… don't mention insanity, okay? Or psychotherapy. Not until he's had at least two glasses, at any rate."
Mike nodded, swallowed hard, and pasted a sickly smile on his face just in time to see Henry freeze at the top of the stairs. "Hey, pal."
He'd seen suspects pause and deliberate for a split second before fleeing. The same deer-in-the-headlights desperation shone in Henry's eyes, and Mike kicked himself for putting it there.
"He knows, Henry," put in Abe quickly. "And he came here first."
Henry licked his lips. "How?" he whispered.
It was a more complicated answer than the moment could bear, so Mike shrugged and downed his scotch and said, "A public museum isn't the best place to keep incriminating evidence, Henry." He placed the photograph he'd… reappropriated… on the table between them.
Henry's face softened ever so slightly.
"Henry," Mike began and stopped. What could he possibly say to fix this? "From one dad to another, will my boys ever grow out of making fart noises?"
Henry told me everything. Well, not everything – that really would have taken forever. But he told me enough.
I'm just glad I won't have to be the one to tell Lucas there really is such a thing as immortality. Jury's still out on the zombie Nazi hunter, but I suppose Dr. Farber's close enough to fit the bill (and holy crap, was I creeped out when Henry told me about him).
But this is where we get to the selfish part.
Bottom line: Henry can't die. Well, technically he can (and does, kind of a lot for someone who's not actually a cop), but he always comes back. It's pointless to envy him for that – I can tell it's no picnic for him – but watching him and Abe joke around together is… I don't even have words for it. It's something special. Something I'll never live long enough to have with my boys. With my job, I can't even promise I'll be there for their high school graduations. It's something I've learned to live with. Karen, too.
That doesn't make it easy.
When I tried to talk to Henry about this, he misunderstood completely. The poor guy thought I was asking him to be my – what, my bodyguard? – and instead of getting all offended, he said yes. He said he'd gladly throw himself in the path of every bullet for me so I could go home to my kids.
Part of me wanted to punch him for it. And I think part of me wanted to cry. (And if you ever tell anyone I said that…)
I haven't tried to finish that talk. We got drunk on some really excellent brandy, and I as far as I know Henry doesn't remember the conversation at all. Which is for the best, because that wasn't even what I wanted to ask him.
I don't need an immortal nursemaid following me around while I'm trying to do my job. What I need is someone to be there to help Karen if something ever happened to me. Even more, I need someone to look after the kids if, God forbid, something happened to both of us.
Someone who would always be there. No matter what.
Maybe this seems nuts to you, Jeff, but when I became a parent I found this whole new world of worry. You know me, I'm a pretty easygoing guy. But when my boys were first crawling around the house, I was terrified. What if one of them cut himself on a loose nail? So I spent a day pounding on all the floorboards. That kind of thing. Now, I worry about school. Will I know the right thing to say if someone bullies them? What if one of my boys bullies someone else? Not to mention the kind of stuff I see every day at work… that's enough to give you nightmares even without kids.
Geez. I'm rambling again. I need to rehearse this better before I ask Henry. I'd hate to muck it up again. I don't think I could stand another hangover like that so soon.
...D'you think I have to ask him? Isn't there some kind of legal doc for making a guy the guardian for your kids without telling him? I wonder if there's an EZ form.
Yeah, because that's what friends do – saddle a buddy with a couple of kids when he's not looking. See? Selfish.
Still, I think Henry might understand. After all, he's a dad, too.
"Mike?" Jo's voice broke the silence – and his concentration. "I think there's something Henry's not telling us."
Mike snorted. "Jo, the guy's a walking Encyclopedia Britannica. If he told us everything he knew, we'd all die of boredom." He paused, waiting for her to say more. "Is this about the case?"
"No? Not really… I don't know."
Oh boy. "What did he do this time?" The words came unbidden to his lips in an echo of his own question to Karen that morning, and the night before, and the night before that… (In chronological order: "He put Playdough in the toilet, his brother fed Playdough to the dog, and you don't want to know, but you need new slippers.")
Jo blew out an exasperated breath, and Mike surreptitiously crossed his fingers. Please don't let this be about the dominatrix. He knew a lot of Henry's secrets, but anything having to do with Molly Dawes was way beyond the call of duty.
"It's like he's constantly dropping all these breadcrumbs for me. Today it was something about a record player, of all things. But any time I try to pick up the thread and follow it, he clams up."
Mike rolled his head against the headrest, thinking. This must have been bothering her for a while; Jo's metaphors always got a bit mangled when she was cheesed off. "A shrink would say he's conflicted," Mike offered.
Jo snorted. "He stopped seeing his shrink."
Mike already knew that. "Huh."
"Wanna know why?"
"They didn't have enough common ground." Jo sketched quote marks in the air.
Of all the stupid reasons for Henry to give… "The guy was British."
"Huh." And what else was there to say, really? With his boys, Mike would have made a game of it: how long could they talk in monosyllable sentences? With Jo, it was best to wait it out. Even her patience had its limits.
"What can I tell him, Mike?" Jo bit her lip. "How do I get him to open up about anything?"
"Tell him you don't have forever," said Mike seriously.
Jo rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to the street. Mike hoped she'd get fed up enough to use that exact phrase next time the subject came up.
That would get Henry's attention.
Now there was an interesting idea.
Hey, Jeff. Mutt again. Where was I?
That's the trouble with stakeouts. Pausing every minute to look for the suspect is distracting. If I leave off suddenly, it's ecause we had to run after a fondue-fork murderer stuck in the 1970s… yeah.
I'm in the car now. Jo's in a snit. Let's face it, it's probably Henry's fault. For all his experience, the guy's clueless. Anyway, she's not in a talking mood, but that's fine, because I just came up with a great plan.
I know I'm poking my nose where it doesn't belong. But if Henry keeps going on this track, he'll be a one-man train wreck. And if he goes off the rails, God only knows what would happen to Jo. And she's my partner. When she's miserable, so am I. On the other hand, when Jo's happy, my life gets easier. Besides, if anyone deserves someone who will always be there for her, it's Jo.
Not to mention, I wouldn't mind being bumped down the list of Henry's Speed-Dial-for-Death emergency contacts.
So I'm putting the whole legal guardianship thing on the back burner. I bet those forms would be a whole lot easier if the guardian-to-be was married.
And between you and me, shorty, that's gonna take a lot of work. Guess I'd better get started.