In those days, the Brass Slipper was an offbeat little bar with an ambience of its own that you sensed the moment you walked through the door. A little different from the places that get written up in the gossip columns and the science fiction magazines and about the last place you'd expect to be a focus of interstellar intrigue.
On a typical night in the Slipper, at the far end of the avocado-green formica bar you might find an old geezer whose face sported a week's crop of white stubble and a mouth showing a few teeth trying to look like a crowd. And closer to the door there would be a couple of failed used car salesmen with lizard eyes and twelve year old suits. The conversation was usually about as lively as a conference call between three goldfish. Business picked up a little on Friday afternoons during Misery Hour when all drinks were half size.
To ensure against any misunderstanding, there were two signs in tired black ink on dirty gray cardboard pasted on the dusty mirror behind the bar. One read
WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO
aliens, time travelers, immortals, scientists,
occult investigators, demons, raconteurs
and aspiring writers.
story telling, scientific speculation, four syllable words
ALLOWED IN THIS BAR.
The lone bartender was gaunt with thinning hair and a long face with thin lips that hadn't smiled since the Dodgers left Brooklyn. He wore blue cowboy shirts whose embroidery was a distant memory and string ties that looked like they'd been chewed on by every dog in the neighborhood. Either Grant Wood or Norman Rockwell could have done something with him, although Rockwell might not have cared for the sour expression on his mug. For all I know, in a place like, say, Stillwater, Oklahoma he might have been considered one of the Beautiful People but here on the outskirts of New Jersey he wasn't even colorful.
A few other signs scattered around expressed clever insights like Work is the curse of the drinking class and Everything in life that's any fun is either illegal, immoral or fattening -- and besides, we're all out of it. The television behind the bar was always tuned to some long forgotten movie starring maybe John Wayne and Susan Hayward, with the sound turned down and the color out of adjustment. The juke box was full of hits from albums like Lawrence Welk Plays Bo Diddley and The 101 Strings Go Country and Western. Above the cash register an old stuffed crow, which in better days had provided a solution to the housing crisis for several families of moths, observed the scene with what people sometimes call a jaundiced eye. Or if not jaundiced, at least it was yellow. A label from a whiskey whose name I won't mention dangled from one of the old crow's claws.
I used to come in whenever I needed to get away from things, knowing I could sit and stare into my drink without worrying about anybody striking up an interesting conversation or telling a joke that was half-way funny. I think the bartender had suspicions that I was an aspiring writer but he was willing to give me a pass on that as long as I wasn't causing trouble. I should have known it was too good to last.
I was there the night the trouble started. The two customers that walked in looked exactly like overgrown stuffed teddy bears, the kind that freshman coeds at exclusive little liberal arts colleges go into ecstacy over. The three regulars and I looked at them with all the joy of an eight-year-old kid seeing a love scene coming in his cowboy movie, but the bartender simply stiffened a bit, like someone finding a pair of Jehovah's witnesses on the doorstep. He fixed the teddy bears with a gaze of cold forged aluminum.
The TBs didn't seem to notice the lack of cordiality. They sat down at the bar and the smaller of the two addressed the bartender. ``Hi, John. I'm Morrie and this is Arnold and we'd like two grasshoppers.''
They must have spent weeks rehearsing to get so many breaches of etiquette into a single short sentence. I'll pass over the word ``Hi'' without comment. But regulars knew that if you absolutely had to call the man behind the bar something, that something was ``bartender.'' The dusty sign saying Brass Slipper Coctail Lounge---John Hicks, prop was not an invitation to get chummy. And there was certainly no point in telling him your name, even you were a regular.
But finally, and most important, if you went into the Brass Slipper you shouldn't look like a teddy bear.
If your knowledge of natural history is up to snuff you will probably know that here on earth teddy bears are strictly an invention of the toy manufacturers. They're not found in the wild or in zoos. And they're most definitely not found as customers in bars. And even if there were real teddy bears, they'd be animals and so they wouldn't talk. That meant that these two were extraterrestials, a fact that Hicks was not slow to pick up on.
Hicks turned his head from the teddy bears and his aluminum gray eyes fixed the first of the two aforementioned signs for a total of 37 seconds. Having thus made sure they had ample time to absorb the message he turned back to them and said ``I think you two boys have wandered into the wrong place. Maybe you were looking for the local 5280 Club.''
The larger TB---the one whose name was Arnold---opened his mouth, momentarily showing enough teeth to intimidate a grizzly, and said ``If mistakes are being made it is not us who are making them. Morrie and I just stoppped by to be friendly and we'd each like a grasshopper.''
Hicks eyes narrowed and his litps tightened at the corners. ``It just so happens that I'm all out of grasshoppers tonight. And I'm also just fresh out of anything else you two boys might be thinking of ordering. So I suggest you head right back out that door and down the street and come back in maybe another hundred years.''
At that Arnold turned to Morrie and Morrie turned to Arnold and they nodded to each other very slowly. Then they gave Hicks the same deliberate nod and slipped off the barstools.
At the door, they stopped and turned back for a minute. Morrie said, ``It is too bad that you are feeling out of sorts tonight, John. We hope that you will be in better spirits tomorrow.''
Hicks stared after them for quite a while before he finally turned away and started straightening the bottles of antifreeze along the mirror. The grizzled old guy at the far end of the bar muttered ``Couple of goddamn college kids, disturbing the goddamn peace.''
But of course they weren't college kids. And we all knew that whatever they had in mind, by the time they were done a lot more would be disturbed than just a little peace.
The next night they were back but this time they had company. The company had blue eyes, a sensuous mouth, and wavy blond hair of the sort that little girls start working toward when they get their first Barbie doll. She was wearing one of those inconsequential summery dresses that leave a soft expanse of bare skin exposed for quite a ways below the shoulders except for a pair of straps so thin that they are a blatant invitation to give a good tug on the dress's hem to see if what is below what is euphemistically called the neckline can live up to the promise of what is above.
The beginning of tonight's performance was the same as it had been the night before but with the addition that Morrie introduced the girl as Billie and said that she would like a daquiri.
Hicks turned to the sign on the mirror that he had so conspicuously observed the previous evening, but this time he seemed to be searching it as though somewhere on it he would find some directions that would explain all the wrong turnings that had finally resulted in his being here tonight. Finally he moved down the bar toward the cash register and started rooting around in an ancient wooden cigar box full of old rubber bands and paper clips, worn out wine corks, dead flashlight batteries, rusted keys, busted watches, and a couple of wooden spools with no thread on them. Finally, down at the bottom, he found what he wanted, a black pencil stub about as big around as my thumb. This he held up to his mouth and, after sacrificing enough saliva to give the tip a thorough wetting, he leaned toward the mirror and added to the refuse-service-to sign the words ``good looking women.'' Coming back to where Billie and the teddy bears were still standing like a family of moonshiners in a graduation picture he said ``I think I told you boys last night that you don't belong in here. So why don't you take the little lady down the street to someplace like Rafferty's WHY NOT? Tavern where you and she may be a little more comfortable?''
The two aliens then turned solemnly to the blonde named Billie. She bestowed on Hicks an enormous smile, like a real estate agent with a termite-ridden house to sell. ``Mr. Hicks,'' she said, with that soft melifluous voice that calls you up in the middle of dinner to offer free dance lessons and a trip to Las Vegas in return for a contribution to the local Cosa Nostra pension fund, ``I'm a civil rights worker and I'm here tonight representing Morrie and Arnold. Apparently you're not aware of it but since you are operating a business engaged in interstate commerce, the law obliges you to offer accomodations to members of the public without discriminating. And that includes extraterrestrials and other characters out of science fiction magazines. Morrie and Arnold are not requesting any special favors of you, they would simply like to be treated with the same courtesy which you would offer to any other customer.''
Hicks chewed this over for a while, searching for a kernel of nourishment in it somewhere. Finally he launched his riposte. ``Miss Civil Rights Worker, if that's who you are, and I won't bother asking to see your badge, because we all know that's not what we're up against here.'' He stopped at that point, evidently to check whether he still had a going sentence or not. Deciding that he didn't, he started a new, shorter one. "These two boys here are not customers and they're not citizens, so there aren't any civil rights about the whole thing. There's no harm being done to nobody by having one bar in this city where a man can go and drink in peace without having some science fiction story happening. There's plenty enough Callahan's and Gavagan's and White Harts for those that want that sort of thing. And nothing in all your civil rights says I got to make grasshoppers and daquiris for anybody."
Flashing the winning smile again the blonde said "I'm sure we'd all settle for a beer, it that's what the house runs to."
``This house don't run to beer, wine or soda pop when it comes to extrateeerestaural teddy bears and half-naked women,'' Hicks said, lapsing into dialect and hyperbole. (With a little allowance for poetic license, the blonde might have been described as quarter-naked.)
Her smile froze. (The clients were now down in the basement asking the termites questions.) ``I see that you're not prepared to be reasonable about this, Mr. Hicks. There are legal remedies available for this sort of behavior. You have been operating this bar for a long time now in flagrant and notorious disrespect for the most basic principles of elementary equity not to mention common garden-variety decency. You leave us no choice but to bring the full power of the law to bear.''
The three then stalked out like Ayn Rand from a meeting of the Young Socialist League. At the door, Arnold stopped and turned back for a moment. ``We are sorry that things have worked out so badly, John. We would like to have been friends.''
The door swung shut behind them and Hicks looked down at the floor for a moment as if he would have liked to spit on it but as bartender didn't want to set a bad example. We regulars all stared into our drinks, not caring to look at each other or at Hicks.
Finally, about half an hour later, the old geezer by the juke box muttered ``Be better off with a goddamn rattle snake in your bed on cold winter nights. One of them goddamn liberated women, I'll bet that's what.'' After that the evening settled back into an uneasy semblance of normality.
Hicks's suspicions of my writing aspirations were not unjustified. But fifteen years of rejection slips had convinced me of the need for some form of regular employment to tide me over until the first best seller and to that end I had applied for a private investigator's license. The application was still pending but I thought the Brass Slipper fracas might be a good thing to start on. It seemed clear that the sudden appearance of two teddy bears and a blonde siren in Hicks's dismal hole in the wall signified something bigger than a mere misplaced concern for the civil rights of extraterrestriels. The existence of the Brass Slipper as I knew it was under threat.
I put my proposition to Hicks. His face wrinkled up like a plum on its way to becoming a prune. ``I guess it's your choice, if you want to mess with it,'' he said at length. ``This place here's all I got. If it turns into one of them places where science fiction stories are always happening, I can't think what would happen to my regulars. I mean nobody thinks about their civil rights. That's the thing that gets me.'' It was not the enthusiasm I had been hoping for but it would have to do. ``If I'm going to be working for you trying to figure out what's behind this,'' I suggested hesitantly, ``you ought to offer me a retainer.'' Hicks stared at me like a man trying to unravel the end of the Unfinished Symphony, his thin brows coming down and trying to get acquainted with the tip of his nose. Finally he bent down under the bar and came up holding a gallon jug.
It didn't register at first. I stared at it like a first grader at a long division problem. Finally he said ``That one's not big enough?''
It clicked. ``That's not quite the kind of retainer I had in mind, pops. I was thinking more in terms of your giving me a little money as encouragement to start working on the case. It doesn't have to be a whole lot.''
I could see that idea wasn't too popular and we finally settled on a free beer. I sat there nursing it for some time, steeling myself for what lay ahead. Finally, with the beer burning deep into my duodenum, I lurched out the door into the mean streets where death has green scales and trouble travels faster than light.
They say that fools rush in where old timers wait for reinforcements. But I knew the only help I'd ever get was already in my left shirt pocket. It was what was making me lurch, in fact. Hicks would not have approved but there didn't seem to be any reason he'd ever have to know and with the crowd I was about to come up against I needed a little extra edge. Somebody seemed to have a big stake in turning the Brass Slipper into another bar where colorful stories happen and I needed to find out why. It seemed like the place to start looking might be in some of the science fiction bars.
I lurched into Murphy's Space-Time Saloon and ordered a calvados. The look I got back was as blank as the virgin sheet of mimeobond that stares back at you from your typewriter, challenging you to commit yourself to a first word. I changed the order to a marc, which didn't cause the look to clear up any. Finally I settled for a beer and tried getting my pipe lit. After creating a sizable cloud of smoke, a good share of which went up my nose, I started in on my questions.
I ran into questions static right away. Murphy came over, leant on my table like a twelfth grade math teacher who's managed to find a kid to pick on smaller than he is, and informed me that this was not Interrogation Night but Shame Night. On Shame Night at Murphy's the customers compete in telling completely humiliating stories about themselves. After a particularly successful one, every gathers around and spits on the story teller.
A promising sounding tale of teen-age passion had just got started when loud sobbing broke out from a wild mass of crinkled dark hair infesting a table in the corner. When the sobber looked up, it was obvious that she must have been using a forced ID. She had bright eyes, a funny big nose, and a tiny chin. Almost all of us rushed over to comfort her but changed our minds as soon as we got within a few feet. She flashed us a silly crooked grin but you could see that her eyes were keeping track of the best direction to run if the need arose.
Of course tradition required that we forget the spicy yarn that had been started and listen to hers, which turned out to be one of those dreary sagas you've heard in a dozen bars and read about in as many science fiction magazines, full of encounters with old bores like Marcus Aurelius, Henry VIII, Abraham Lincoln, and Soren Kierkegaard. The kid's name was Louise and she was wearing a T-shirt that said Indescribably Delicious and a mini-skirt that would have been indecent even back in those days in the Sixties when nothing was indecent. The upshot of her story was that she had been physiologically fourteen years old now for almost a couple of thousand years, after being breathed on by a holy man in the Middle East, and in all that time had never been kissed.
This heartbreaking tale immediately struck home to Clever Hans, the pasty-faced guy by the fireplace. Clever Hans had a billiard-ball head, a bulging neck, and a belly like a woman who's taken fertility drugs and is five days away from octuplets. He immediately hoisted himself to his feet and steamed over toward Louise to rectify her situation. But before he got within striking range he caught a whiff of the kid's breath. He managed to get into reverse before lips came within range of lips, muttering something about not wanting to be a cradle robber. The rest of agreed that fourteen was indeed a bit young to start messing around, even if it was rather hard cheese remaining that age for two thousand years.
I was able to take advantage of the interruption to find out that nobody in Murphy's would admit to knowing anything about the teddy bears. As I left, I noticed Louise trailing behind like a cat who's spotted a pound of liver on its way home from the grocery store.
I stood still and she stood still, her little breasts pushing their nipples up against the T-shirt. ``What are you supposed to be,'' I growled, `` the honor guard?''
She kept her distance, in case maybe I was thinking of kicking her. ``I just thought, since I'm not getting anywhere with my problem, maybe you'd let me help out with yours.'' She tried using her crooked grin on me.
I gave her a good long stare and finally shrugged my shoulders and let her come along. What the hell, as long as she stayed out of smelling range she seemed harmless enough.
``I've told my stories in bars all over the country,'' she said, ``but it never seems to help.''
``Life is not like in the science fiction magazines,'' I said. ``Don't you have a best friend?''
She shook her head forlornly and I asked ``Don't you ever watch the commercials on television?'' Getting a negative to that one too, I suggested she let me know if we passed an all night drugstore.
``Take a memo, sweetheart,'' I barked.
Louise looked bewildered. ``I don't have a pencil.''
``Skip it. We'll do that later.'' I had forgotten her for a moment (she was on the leeward side) and had been talking into my shirt pocket. Since I saw no reason to take Louise into confidence yet about what was in the pocket, I decided to leave the dictation until later. We headed for the next bar on my list: The Red Herring.
Inside were the typical Herring crowd of computer jockeys, science fiction writers, PhDs, and others removed by at least several standard deviations from the societal norm. The main bout for the evening had not yet got under way and people were sitting around like feeding time at the zoo.
``If you've got a moment to spare,'' I said, ``I'd like to ask a few questions about a pair of teddy bears.''
I guess I could have saved my larynx, because no sooner had I got this out than that old bore known to all as Harry Burgess snapped his fingers as if he'd finally remembered where he'd mislaid the lost chord and started a monologue.
``Ah yes, now, that is a matter I could say a few words on. Not your teddy bears, of course -- an absurd topic -- but your assumption that I have time to spare. A person who would be ashamed at coming in and asking for spare change has no hesitation at all in asking me for the time of day, despite the well known fact that time is money. No, no, don't apologize, I understand completely, you just didn't think. But I knew a man who did think about that very matter. Eric Grouse, his name was, and he had read a paper by LeGuin in some, hm, well known physics fanzine wondering where does the time go. A rather ingenuous question considering that the United States, with 5% of the world's population, consumes more than 60% of the world's time. I mean one only need consider the time consumed in the manufacture of time bombs, timecards, timetables, time capsules and the like. Everyone acknowledges that we're living on borrowed time but few realize the true magnitude of the national temporal deficit. Existing time deposits are simply no longer adequate. We all have things we'd like to see done in good time but if we don't take timely action we'll wind up having to do them in no time at all, because the day is coming where we'll all be timeless. People talk about needing to make time but, before Eric, they seldom made much of it. Strangely enough, he had originally intended to explore space but a knowledgeable friend told him that space had been done to death so he decided to do time. And he did, too, in Leavenworth, where they have a temporal research facility. Got quite immersed in it, had time on his hands and on his clothes and, well, anyway, in Leavenworth he discovered how hard it can be getting time off. But I'm afraid...''
That will be enough to give you a little idea of the kind of guff Burgess was giving out with. As soon as he began, the other customers began forming a little circle around him, exchanging smiles and knowing glances, and it was clear that I wouldn't be hearing any sense from anyone for at least the next hour. I surreptitiously murmured a comment into my shirt pocket and turned to leave.
But Burgess, who could not have been interrupted by a bevy of naked girls with signs saying that sex is unfair, is quicker than a bullfrog's tongue when it comes to noticing someone not paying attention. He stopped in the middle of his discourse, gave me a contumelious stare, then circled the crowd of listeners with a conspiratorial glance which was finally brought to bear on me again.
``What has he got in his pocketses?''
``Shut up creep,'' I reparteed, lurching out the door. I never have been able to stand these idiots who can't keep their genres straight.
As I stood on the sidewalk wondering what the next logical step would be, it occurred to me that a Cut-Throat Drugs branch was located just a few streets over and should still be open, so we headed in that direction.
At the check-out counter, while paying for an economy size bottle of Listerine, I got myself two more of Dr. Grabow's finest. ``This looks to me like a three-pipe problem,'' I confided to Louise.
``I hope you're not going to smoke all three at once,'' she said. I gave her a sharp look but her face was innocent as the new fallen snow. Which is to say the acid content was significant but not high enough to be dangerous to humans. You'd think that after two thousand years she'd have outgrown adolescent sarcasm.
On the way out I managed to trip on the doorsill and went staggering for a few steps, clutching my shirt pocket.
``What have you got in your pocketses anyway?''
``Just be good and use your Listerine.''
She took a good slug and stood on the curb gargling, spitting it out into the storm sewer and splattering a passing car. I brought my face close to hers.
The Listerine made a difference. Her breath now smelled like peppermint-garlic schnapps. Maybe I should have got chlorets instead.
It could have been just the kind of dental care she had in her youth. But an idea suddenly occurred to me.
``Louise, that holy man in the Middle East. Was his name Paul by any chance?''
Her bright eyes widened in astonishment. ``How did you know that?''
``I was afraid of that. Apparently he decided that since, at least any time in the near future, you clearly weren't going to burn, then there was no good reason for you to marry either. Along with life everlasting he provided you with a little gimmick to maintain your purity. I guess several thousand years of horniness was the sort of gift St. Paul figured a young girl would appreciate.''
I decided we'd try one more bar. We pushed our way into the next one down the street. The customers were spindly with salmon pink skin and about twice as tall as anyone ought to be. Instead of drinking they were giving themselves electric shocks. The bartender had two heads and a shortage of arms. I nudged Louise and we headed back out. What I was looking for wasn't going to be found among the leather trade.
``It looks like we've pretty much struck out tonight,'' I told Louise. ``If you want to stay on the case with me, why don't I pick you up outside the Brass Slipper tomorrow night?''
I had an uneasy feeling as I watched her walk off trying to swing her miniskirted hips seductively. A kid like that ought to have parents to rebel against, brothers and sisters to fight with, homework to keep her from thinking.
My musings were interrupted by complaining noises from my pocket. I reached in and brought out my confederate.
``So what's the verdict, sweetheart, are we making any progress?''
Grxtl wiggled provocatively in my hand. ``What are we talking about, the case or the teenybopper? I mean it's fine for you, darling, but I've been sweltering in that pocket waiting to see the little gray cells in action. Could you please put me down so I can stretch out a little?''
I was only too glad to put her down. She stretched out to the size and shape of a dachshund. She was very adaptable in form but due to the law of conservation of mass her weight was always about twenty pounds. That accounted for my tendancy to lurch this evening while she had been maintaining the guise of a mild mannered ball point pen in my reinforced pocket. On the other hand, when stretched out to her full four foot limit she had trouble with winds.
She cocked her head critically. ``Could it be that tonight was a demonstration of zen and the art of detection? I mean I hate to think it's what I came all the way from Betelgeuse for.'' She was here as an exchange student and had asked if she could follow the case with me to see an American detective at work. ``Don't you ever get just the teensiest suspicion that your true vocation might be library science?''
``I'll take care of the witticisms,'' I said. ``You supply the admiration. Tonight I was just getting warmed up, letting these characters know they've got something to worry about.''
I set off toward my apartment, smacking my lips and slapping my thigh for her to follow.
I had thought that we were through for the night, but there were forces abroad that had other ideas. One of them was Sargeant Candi Kane of the Metropolitan Police Force, Meter Maid Brigade. She was waiting on the sidewalk outside my apartment.
``You're supposed to have a leash for that,'' she said with a jerk of the chin toward Grxtl.
I patted the three pipes in my pants pocket. ``Got it right here. Anyway, the dog is under my immediate and effective control.''
``Let's see the license,'' she said.
This was more serious. How did she know the investigator's license hadn't come through? I tried stalling.
``The dog license, stupid.''
Oh, yeah. I'd forgotten about that. But during the interchang Grxtl had take advantage of Candi's lack of attention to change to the shape of a cobblestone. On the paved street she was not completely inconspicuous, but was not likely to be noticed by someone looking for a dachshund. ``What dog?'' I asked.
Candi looked around in annoyed confusion. ``I thought he was under your immediate and effective control.''
``It's a she,'' I said. ``Don't make sexist assumptions. And she's just a neighborhood stray. I don't own any dogs.''
``All right, wise guy, you got away with it this time. But one of these days I'm going to nail your ass to the wall.''
Without commenting on Kane's rhetorical poverty I picked Grxtl up as if I had just remembered that my decor was lacking a twenty pound cobblestone and headed up the stairs to my building. Inside the building she reverted to dachshund.
The match I had left stuck in my doorjamb was lying on the floor and a line of light was showing under the door. I slipped my key into the lock as silently as Rudolph Valentino creeping into the tent to see Agnes Ayres, twisted it carefully, then shoved the door open with all my strength, slamming it back against the hall mirror. I rushed inito the room through fragments of glass with the idea of twirling around and facing my attacker. The last thing I remember was the foot that stuck out to trip me and the floor rushing up like a wolf from the fold.
I woke up in Carlsbad Caverns, listening to an arrangement of Beethoven's Ninth for church bells. A few seconds later I realized it was only the concerto for trolley car bell by John Cage. Finally I opened my eyes and figured out that it was the chimes on my custom phone.
I picked up the phone and heard Lamont Cranston's alter ego: ``I guess you read the note we left.''
``Uh, hang on a second.''
I looked around for a minute, finally finding the note lying on the bed where I should have been. While looking, I noticed another piece of bad news. The bathroom door was open and heat was oozing out. I decided to worry about that problem later and looked at the note.
It seemed a smidgen less than lucid. Or maybe it was me that was not too lucid. ``If you ever want to see Rexall alive again, be at Brautigan's Bar tomorrow night at eight and bring the Burmese Raven.''
The third time through I realized that Rexall, of course, was simply Grxtl. The Burmese Raven was a toughie, though. Meanwhile the phone was waiting and the temperature in the bathroom was falling. I decided to bluff. ``I'm free tomorrow evening but the Raven presents a bit of a problem.''
``Tell your problems to your psychiatrist. Here's a word from Rexall, just so you know she's all right. So far.''
The word was one of those incoherent conglomerations of sound which are transcribed sometimes as ``woof,'' sometimes as ``ruff,'' and occasionally as ``arf.'' It could have been any dog in the neighborhood. It could also have been Grxtl. I'd never heard her dog imitation.
I hung up the phone and went to check the bathroom, where things were as bad as I'd feared. The one orchid I'd been trying to cultivate had definitely departed for a better world. Cut off in the flower of its youth. Or even earlier, actually.
I was ready to stalk the mean streets with the vengeance of a detective scorned. But I also needed to check up on the latest installment of some important dreams. I flipped an imaginary coin and was out before it landed. And I don't mean out on the mean streets.
There was something funny about the way the coffee tasted the next morning. I tried a few more sips and realized it wasn't tasing of much of anything at all. It was only freeze-dry but usually put out a bit more flavor than that. I washed the rest down the sink and headed out on my rescue mission.
I stopped by the Slipper first to find out the latest developments. Hicks looked about as cheerful as a novel by Zola. He said he'd been served with a summons to appear at a hearing next Wednesday. ``Seems like your detecting's not doing me much good, unless you can do it a little faster. They'll close this place right down. Couldn't you rub that civil rights woman out or something?''
I explained that I didn't operate that way. At the time, the statement was made in perfectly good faith.
The coffee Hicks served me didn't taste any better than my own had. I took a perverse comfort in the fact, since it meant there was no need for me to scrape up enough money for another jar of freeze-dry.
``Why don't you just agree to serve the teddy bears?'' I asked Hicks.
The old stuffed crow about the cash register stared down at me reproachfully. Hicks made a sound of disgust. ``Wouldn't stop there, you know. Those teddy bears, that's just the thin edge of the screwdriver.''
I tried to sound more hopeful than I felt and left Hicks to his brooding. Maybe when I found Grxtl I'd find the answer to his problem too.
Passing by the county welfare office I noticed Sargeant Kane checking parking meters. She was on a winning streak, but then it was a good territory. The welfare department picks up the tab for its clients.
I hopped a bus and headed for Kane's suburban mansion. The place was menacing enough to frighten the Bronte sisters. Even in sunlight, the gray stone looked as cold as a day-old corpse. The other houses in the neighborhood huddled away trying not to acknowledge it.
I plied the front door with a credit card. It rejected Visa but accepted American Express.
The decor inside was the designer's police special, with 38 caliber blue wallpaper. The front hall sported a painting by Keene showing the two undersized waifs with oversized eyes who can be seen in five hundred convenience art stores from Coral Gables to San Rafael. So much for the artistic touch.
I moved on to the library. There weren't any dachshund hairs but I did find, besides the usual collection of semi-blunt instruments, a curious red vellum volume with a gold monogram on the cover and writing inside that could have been either Arabic or Serbo-Croation or almost anything else. I was checking it for microdots when a familiar voice sounded behind me. ``I didn't realize you were literate, Shamus.''
Billie the voluptuous civil rights worker was wearing an ankle-length neglig&eacutre; made of 80% pink vapor, 20% yellow mist. The revolver in her right hand was also an attention grabber.
``According to Women's Wear Daily,'' I commented, ``guns are not being used as accessories with nightwear this season. And the one you're holding is very unfeminine. Spoils the overall effect.''
``I'm sure we have more interesting things to discuss,'' Billie said. ``Like how you got in and what you're doing here.''
``That's for me to know and you to wonder about,'' I quipped. ``What intrigues me is how a meter maid and a civil right worker pay the rent on a joint like this.''
``It is roomy, isn't it?'' She made a sweeping gesture with the gun. ``But don't give me credit for it. I'm a visitor, just like you.''
Without saying anything, I pointedly eyed the negligé.
She shrugged, exposing a few bits that had been pretty well exposed anyway. ``True, my visit is a little more extended and less furtive than yours. But then you may turn out to be here longer than you planned. I think you'd better tell me what you're up to.''
``Let's just say I'm here looking for a dog.'' There was a brown blob slithering across the carpet behind her.
Billie raised her eyebrows. ``Ah yes, Rexall, of course. A charming creature. Whatever made you think she might be found here?''
``It might have something to do with Sargeant Kane's being the only person I can think of who's seen her with me.'' I needed to keep the conversation running a little longer. ``Why don't you let that poor guy Hicks run his bar the way he wants to? He's not hurting anybody.'' The blob was almost there.
``He's hurting the principal of equal --''
The slithering brown quickly transformed itself into a giant hand that swarmed over Billie's body, clutching it in all the right places. She tried to free her nose, mouth, and throat, but the struggle was over in a minute or two.
I bent down over the civil rights worker's prone form while Grxtl slithered off and transformed herself back into a dachshund. Billie would never flash that winning smile again.
``Thanks for the help,'' I said. ``But you didn't have to do a complete snuff job. Half dead would have been plenty.''
The dachshund shrugged. ``I didn't think people worried that much about the disposal of minor villains. Or could it have been something about the way she looked in a negligé?''
I stared at the blonde with the blue face lying on the floor. ``This could make us look rather bad. I'm not even a licensed investigator yet. Besides, I had a few questions to ask her.''
Grxtl cocked an impertinent eyebrow. ``Is that what they're calling it now?''
I frowned, then turned away with a shrug. ``I'm glad I don't have to ransom you because I didn't understand the demand. I'm supposed to show up at Brautigan's Bar tonight with something called the Burmese Raven. Whatever that might be.''
The dachshund coughed discretely. ``You're the detective, sweetie, but could I just mention a clue? In the Slipper. Above the cash register.''
``The old crow?''
``Hey, very good. Have you been practicing? Now the question is, why would anybody want it?''
It didn't make any sense to me at all. ``We'd better split while we can,'' I said. ``You'll have to be a ballpoint pen again until I get you back to the apartment. Is there anything else I need to see?''
``There are some rather intriguing sleeping arrangements upstair you might be interested in.''
I went up to look. Intriguing was the least of it. Aside from mundane facilities like waterbeds and air mattresses, not to mention Beautyrest and Posturepedic, there were perches for those of us who prefer to perch, hangers for those who prefer hanging, a tank of salt water for floaters and a Russian stove in case of Russians.
``I don't like this at all,'' I said. ``It looks like we've stumbled into the carnivorous section of the rose garden. Did you get any idea what's going on?''
``They didn't seem in the mood to gossip. I heard Kane say something about a coyote. Do you suppose that's one of the houseguests they're expecting?''
It didn't suggest anything to me. ``Did they treat you all right?''
``They fed me some Alpo. I choked a little of it down and hid the rest under the refrigerator.''
I took a last look around. ``If I had any sense, probably what I'd do now is to call the FBI. But I'd like to try showing up at Brautigan's tonight and see what I can learn.''
Grxtl rolled her eyes upwards. ``Could it be you're mistaking yourself for the Lone Ranger? Just remember, Sherlock, I might manage to look like a gun but I won't be able to shoot.''
I frowned as we passed the library where the blue-faced blonde was still lying. ``I really wish you hadn't done that,'' I said. ``Joanna Russ won't like it at all.''
Lunch didn't taste much better than the morning coffee had and dinner was no improvement. I picked up Louise outside the Slipper and headed for Brautigan's. She was wearing something sophisticated in green satin but it just made her look more lost than ever.
``Didn't you bring the Raven?'' she asked.
``Maybe later. I want to try a little bluff first.''
Brautigan's Bar looked out on the street balefully with faded green curtains covering the lower half of dark windows. I nodded to Louise slowly, let my hands hang loose at my sides, and we stepped inside.
A thin balding man by the name of Prof. Braine was giving out with the secrets of the universe for free. ``What it comes down to,'' he was saying, ``is that the mythos of the hero began to collapse when villains ceased to fit the archetypical patterns.''
``I guess what you mean,'' his interlocutor Mr. Quadruplex rejoined, ``is that you can't have a shoot-out with a computer at high noon.''
``That's certainly an elementary instance of what I'm getting at.'' Braine turned to include Louise and me in the conversation. ``What do you think? Have modern forms of villainy made heroism obsolete?''
``I don't usually get into these deep thoughts,'' I said. But it did cross my mind recently that it's beginning to be a hell of a world when you find hard boys looking like teddy bears.''
``My uncle Horace got beat up once by some teddy bears,'' said Mr. Crude. ``Years ago it was, in London. I didn't know they still had them anymore and I never heard of them being in this country. Horace was the one with the fake Nicaraguan passport who --''
``Quite so,'' said Mr. Shelly from the delicatessen. ``We find ourselves reduced to trying to make heros out of the scientist, the detective, or even the political reformer.''
``I wouldn't know about the rest of those you mentioned,'' I commented, ``but I've done a little in the detective line and the last thing I feel like is a hero.''
I noticed a decreased volume in the background conversation and a tendency of heads to turn my way.
Mr. Frost gave me an approving nod. ``Well, don't stop now,'' he encouraged. ``You're off to a good start on a story.''
I shrugged and tilted my glass so I could study what was inside a little more easily. ``I don't really like to talk about a case that's in progress. Especially this one. It's pretty delicate.''
Louise smirked. ``What he means is, he doesn't have a clue.''
``I'm sure you'll be finding us the soul of discretion here,'' Mr. O'Henry the bartender said. ``For instance, we wouldn't think of making reference to the young lady's age, as long as her forged ID is good. So you can be speaking your mind without fear.''
``Or perhaps you would prefer to tell us how you got started as a detective,'' Dr. Rasputin suggested.
``There's no mystery about that one. I got involved in a locked room case in my hometown. That was when I was still not much more than a kid and my goal in life was to be a bartender.''
``Now bartending's something I could be telling you about,'' Mr. O'Henry said. ``It's a hard line to be getting into anymore with all the competition, especially if you're a human. Now if you were Irish like myself --''
``But about this locked room,'' Dr. Rasputin insisted. ``A man shot, I presume, and all the doors and windows locked?''
``Stabbed, actually. With an eleven inch butcher knife. The door was bolted and the windows nailed shut from the inside.''
``And the knife missing, I presume?''
``It was lying beside him.''
Dr. Rasputin considered this for a second. ``Nobody suspected suicide?''
``Nobody ever knocks themself off in a locked room nowadays,'' I explained. ``It looks too suspicious.''
``Coulda been one of them secret passageways,'' Mr. Crude suggested. ``Like my niece Agnes had built into her garage for her Japanese lover.''
``That was the first thing they checked. Besides, that sort of thing went out with Wilkie Collins.''
``Might have been done by remote control,'' Shelly suggested.
I let him know he was way off on that one too.
``I'm afraid we have to be a little more ingenious,'' Prof. Braine said. ``It strikes me that the murderer might have employed a time machine, done the stabbing, and then returned to a time when the room was unlocked.''
``Clever,'' I said. ``That one gets honorable mention.''
``What he probably had was a gold amulet guaranteed to open all locked places to you,'' Doc Smith suggested.
``He could have had it done by a tiny dragon that hid in a wastepaper basket afterwards,'' Quadruplex put in.
``Might have been poltergeist,'' Frost offered.
``Or black magic,'' O'Henry offered.
``Was there a pentagram in the room when the body was found?'' Shelly asked.
``By using the fourth dimension he could have simply gone around the lock,'' Braine explained.
``Maybe it was done with an automatic toenail clipping machine,'' Crude ventured. ``My sister Hortense, before she snuck across the border into Mexico --''
``You guys are full of good ideas,'' I broke in. ``With characters like you walking the streets it's a wonder anybody is safe. But the clown who pulled this one off wasn't that long on creativity. The way I broke the case, I went down to City Hall and checked building permits. Turned out the murderer was a contractor and simply built the house around the corpse.''
There was a moment of shocked silence. Then Mr. Crude said, ``That's the stupidest thing I ever heard of. Why even my fiance Hildegard in the Hemingway parrot case --''
``I'm afraid I have to agree,'' said Prof. Braine. ``What you have told us is nothing but a simple variation on an Edgar Allan Poe story. Now time travel would have been an elegant solution.''
``If it had been done by a djinn --'' Shelly said.
``If it had been a leprechaun --'' O'Henry objected.
``If you had used vodoo&nb sp;--''
``If he was a werecockroach --''
It seemed I had managed to get everybody pretty steamed up. I should have known better than to open my trap in the first place.
I banged my glass on the table. ``What about the Burmese Raven? What about the coyote?''
The shocked silence was broken by the quiet voice of Mr. O'Henry the bartender. ``If it's disputations you want to be getting into, it's not at Brautigan's you'll be doing it. Now I'm not one for pointing the finger of blame and it goes against the grain to turn away a paying customer. But it does seem to me that our detective friend has been unnecessarily provoking towards the others present, telling as it were a story which almost verges on plausibility. Here in Brautigan's we are a very tolerant lot but plausibility is one thing we will not stand still for. Perhaps you were not knowing that, being from the world of detectives where such things are not so important. But I'll thank you to be remembering it in the future.''
While O'Henry had been unravelling this oration I had been mapping out my comeback, which was going to be as acid as a television producer's stomach. But suddenly I looked down at my table and saw that a tiny winged elephant had made off with two of my pipes. I made a quick grab but he was already in the air and headed for the rafters. I looked at O'Henry and the customers indignantly but none of them seemed to have noticed a thing.
Louise sat there grinning. ``It looks like this may have to be a one-pipe problem after all.''
``Come on,'' I said. ``We're wasting our time here.''
``What do we do now?'' she asked. ``Another bar?''
``These joints are getting me down,'' I said. ``All these jokers are running circles around me and I was up too late last night anyway.''
I was halfway down the street before I realized I was alone. I turned around and saw Louise standing back in the middle of the sidewalk like George Wallace in the schoolhouse door. While I was looking at her in disgust, two gay knights of the evening in lavender striped pants, gold lamé vests and silver fingernails came strolling by, making a slow circular detour around her with pursed lips and nodding heads. When they reached me the appraisal was repeated and they went on their way exchanging inaudible comments and giggling loudly.
I went back to get Louise. Her little jaw was stuck out and her hands were pushed down at her sides and balled up into silly little fists. She didn't look like she was planning on moving for the next couple of hours.
``You'll have people's dogs pissing on your leg if you keep standing there,'' I said. ``Not to mention what the pigeons will do to your hair. If you think nobody will notice you're drunk because you're not weaving down the street you're making a mistake.''
She moved her hands up to her hips. ``You're not much fun on a date,'' she said. ``And stop making absurd comments.''
I looked at her in exasperation. Absurd comments are my strong suit, after all. ``Do you want to go to another bar?''
She glared at me like a five-year-old offered Brussels sprouts for dessert.
I could have just left her there, in which case things would have turned out a little different. But something about that crooked mouth and tiny chin got the better of me.
``I'll tell you what. Let's go up to my place and listen to some records.''
My sense of smell had been completely kaputt ever since I'd landed on my head last night. I woke up the next morning with the blues walking around in my bed along with an underaged kid who'd just discovered sex. It was a funny feeling knowing I'd finally punctured the maidenhead of somebody who'd been saving it twenty centuries now. But sentiment aside, her one-more-time act that morning was beginning to wear thin and some other things about her were beginning to bother me even more.
From outside the apartment came a growl of trucks making their way up a hill, a screech of brakes from women drivers proving their manhood, a roar of jets carrying people to someplace that just had to be better. Some of them were coming here.
Hot hydrocarbons and monoxide were wafting in through the open window, ultraviolet rays were pouring down from the ozone-depleted sky. The radio told us that Mon egasque terrorists were still holding the Belgian Embassy and the President had just declared that hunger is unpatriotic.
We got up for breakfast and I made with the small talk.
``There was a time when I used to like this planet,'' I said. ``A time when anyone you met spoke plain simple English or wasn't worth talking to, when someone with green skin was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, when rockets were for the Fourth of July and teddy bears were for little kids to drag by one foot down the stairs, when men were men and a good cigar was a smoke, when bars were to smoke in and people who wanted to talk went to the movies. Now the place has become overrun with detectives who never even heard of a least likely suspect, with scientists bringing back pictures of Mars with no canals, with bright young guys who think they're writing science fiction but are only writing literature. I guess it's progress, kid, but I can't say I like it.''
Louise made with her funny smile. ``You sure get carried away once get start talking. I guess that's what they call post coitum triste.''
I picked up two forks, put them together to make a little tent, let it fall over. ``I think I've finally got this case figured out and I don't much like what I've come up with.''
``If you ask me, it's just a case of bureaucratic self-indulgence.'' She sounded a little worried.
I picked up one of the two silver picture frames on the table. It contained a color photograph of Dr. Gideon Fell receiving the O.B.E. Unfortunately, he had not been able to wear his enormous black cape and shovel hat for the occasion.
``That's what it was meant to look like, all right,'' I said. ``I might have believed that if I hadn't started wondering how Sargeant Kane could keep up a suburban mansion on a meter maid's pay.''
``She might have inherited from a rich uncle.''
``You're full of clever objections this morning.'' I leafed through Isaac Asimov's book on the Wimsey incunabula, staring at the color plates without really seeing them. ``Then when I saw all the funny sorts of beds out at her place, I really got thinking.''
The bright eyes opened wide and the funny mouth became a circle. ``Then you're the one who smothered Billie.''
``Not quite, but you're close.'' I picked up the other picture frame, containing an official facsimile of the famous license-to-kill issued to James Bond, endorsed by Queen Elizabeth and Sir Anthony Eden and with an annotation that it was not valid within the United Kingdom. ``Then there was the mysterious reference to a coyote. It took me a while to figure that one out, but last night while you were having your first climax I finally remembered where I'd heard about coyotes before. That's what they call the guys who smuggle Mexicans across the border. It's funny last night how the conversation at Brautigan's kept coming coming back to the topic of illegal immigration. But in this case, the aliens have been coming from a lot further than Mexico. They've been --''
I noticed the gun in Louise's hand. It was one of those nickle-plated jobbies that look like toys but are not.
``I wish you didn't have to be so damn quick about everything,'' she said. There was tear in the corner of each eye. ``I guess it's St. Paul still at work. At least this time he did let me get one good night out of it. You're a first for me in more than one way now. I've never shot anyone before either. I'm going to --''
What I had been turning over in my hand looked like a glass paperweight with a snowscene inside. But in fact, it was Grxtl. My fist shot out and twenty pounds of extraterrestriel biology met ninety pounds of immortal adolescent. The results were not very pretty.
Two thousand years of misery were summed up in the tiny body lying limply on my floor. The poor kid had never come up with a right answer in her whole life. I picked up the gun and saw that she hadn't even had the safety catch off.
What the hell. My sense of smell was coming back anyway.
A couple of days later, I was explaining it to Grxtl in the hospital. No bones were broken, of course -- she doesn't have any. She was stretched out to three feet, but even at that looked lost in the big white hospital bed.
``Where I went wrong,'' I said, ``was in not figuring she'd have a gun. I got taken in by those bright eyes in spite of myself. I was suspicious of her from the first, of course, because of the way she was so quick to latch onto me at Murphy's and the fact that she always seemed to know almost everything about the case even though I never told her about it.''
``I don't mean to criticize,'' Grxtl said, ``but I thought for just a moment there that you'd let the situation get out of control. I mean of course it did all work out all right in the end and I'm sure I ought to be thrilled at having been a party to it. Even if I do turn out to be crippled for life.'' She batted her eyes a few times. Apparently this was supposed to make me take her seriously. ``But why were they putting the arm on the Slipper? Could you please tie all the little pieces together?''
I paused for a minute to gather my thoughts and look wise. ``The Slipper was a threat to them. If one bar could get away with letting customers sit and meditate on their drinks without being pestered by scientists mouthing off and bug-eyed monsters telling heart-warming stories, then a whole slew of others might follow suit. And they couldn't afford to take that risk. The bars were a cornerstone of the illegal alien trade, you see. Some poor extraterrestriel that might be earning maybe five dollars a week on his home planet could come here and make twenty times that much per evening appearing in bars and hosting science fiction conventions. It was even better for the ones that could masquerade as leprechauns and hobbits.''
Grxtl shook her head in amazement. ``You make it all seem so obvious. Why couldn't I have thought of that?''
I shrugged modestly. ``Of course they also wanted to get hold of the Raven.''
``And you figured that one out too?''
``Yeah, I caught on when somebody at Brautigan's mentioned Hemingway's parrot and then somebody else even referred to Edgar Allan Poe.''
``They must have actually wanted you to tumble to it,'' Grxtl marveled.
``Not really. It's just that when you've got these things on your mind it's hard to keep them out of the conversation. I got enough information from Hicks to check that it really is Poe's raven.''
``And what happens now to all those illegal aliens?''
I frowned. ``They'll have to let a lot of them stay, I'm afraid. Give them green cards. Rounding them all up and sending them back would be pretty hopeless.''
``What about Louise?''
``She's up on the next floor getting her jaw patched up. When she gets out, she'll be turned over to the juvenile authorities.''
``You know, somebody who didn't know better might have thought you'd been developing a bit of a thing for her.''
I looked away. ``She had more problems than she could ever get a handle on. Kids like that are easy marks for purveyors of interstellar barratry. They get fed a line of idealistic sounding nonsense and it all sounds glamorous and exciting to them. By the time they find out what the real score is they're already in too deep.
``Besides,'' I added, ``she was jail bait.''
Gxtl sighed. ``It doesn't seem like we exactly brought a lot of happiness to anyone, did we? Still, I suppose at least you did save the Brass Slipper.''
I stared down at the floor. ``Well, actually, no. There's been so much publicity, Hicks can't keep the undesirables away anymore. He's selling out to a White Hart franchise.''
``And who gets the Raven?''
``It's going to the Van Vogt Museum of Dianetics.''
There was a long silence. ``In a case like this,'' I explained, ``there's no such thing as a happy ending.''
``That may be,'' Grxtl said, ``but it's all pretty unsatisfactory.''
I shrugged. What the hell, Chandler did it better but he had more practice than me.