Reading Material For Thanksgiving Weekend
Here’s chapter 2 of Thereby Hangs A Tail. (Chapter 1 was posted October 1, in case you want to refer back.)
In the old days, when Leda was still around, I used to sleep out in the front hall, my back against the door, on account of Leda not wanting me in the bedroom for some reason. Now I like to sleep at the foot of Bernie’s bed, on this nubbly rug we got at a yard sale, me and Bernie. Those nubbles feel great in a way that’s hard to describe. But on nights when Bernie snored – such as the night after our dinner at Dry Gulch – I moved back to the front door, which was why I heard a car pulling up outside just as the first light of day pushed in at the darkness.
I got up, went right to the tall narrow window by the door, looked out. A limo was parked on the street, long and black. The driver, dressed in black, got out and opened a rear door. A woman got out. She wore black, too. Lots of blackness, all of a sudden. I started barking, not sure why. From next door came a high-pitched yip-yip-yip. Hey! Iggy was up. I barked louder. So did he. Iggy was a great pal. The fun we’d had, back before the electric fence guy had made a sale at Iggy’s place – I could tell you a story or two. Iggy had had trouble getting used to the electric fence, now stayed indoors most of the time. No electric fence at our place, mine and Bernie’s, of course. Bernie had grabbed the collar from the electric fence guy and walked right through the zapper, taking the shock, and had then shaken his head and sent the man on his way. Who needed an electric fence? I wasn’t the wandering type, except if it just so happened the back gate was open, or the smell of fox or javelina was in the air, or a strange car went down the street, or I picked up the sound of –
The woman in black was coming up the walk. She moved fast; the sun, popping up over the rooftops, glittered on her jewelry. That sparkly one on her finger – wow! Leda had a ring like that, but not nearly as big. Leda had had one like that, I should say. Just before the break-up with Bernie, there’d been a bad incident where I got blamed for losing the ring. Why would I want to bury a ring? Did I have even the slightest memory of ever doing anything remotely like that? No. My mind was absolutely guilt-free on that subject.
The woman leaned forward to press the bell, but it had stopped working sometime back and was on Bernie’s list of things to fix. Every so often the tool box came out and he took a crack at shortening the list. Those were exciting days! That time the toaster blew up, for example, or when the toilet –
Knock knock. The woman in black had figured out about the bell, quicker than most. Something about the way she knocked rubbed me the wrong way. I barked again. Iggy picked up on me and did his yipping thing. The woman knocked harder, not a heavy knock, exactly, more a sharp ratta-tat-tat, like high heels on a polished floor. She spoke, and there was sharpness in her voice, too. “Anyone in there? Open up.”
I turned and ran down the hall, past Charlie’s room, empty, meaning this wasn’t every second weekend or Thanksgiving, or whatever Bernie and Leda had agreed on lately, and into Bernie’s room. Bernie lay on his back, one arm flung over his eyes, the covers all twisted up. I smelled bourbon and cigarette smoke, plus the smell of Bernie when it was time for a shower.
I barked, but not too loud; the poor guy. I knew what he needed, had seen the whole routine plenty of times – a lot more sleep, then Advil, coffee, cold wet towel on his forehead. Knock knock knock. There wasn’t time for any of that. I barked again, louder this time.
“Uh,” said Bernie, his voice weak. “Gah.”
I moved to the side of the bed, pulled at a corner of the sheet. From down inside the twisted covers, Bernie pulled back. Bernie was a big strong guy, but not at the moment. I ripped the sheets right off him.
Bernie, arm still over his face, groaned, “Chet, what the hell?”
Somehow I’d got all tangled in the covers. I couldn’t see – and that’s a thing I hate. I struggled, clawed, rolled around – nearby something came crashing down on the floor – and burst free at last. Bernie was sitting up now, one eye open. It had turned red overnight.
“Sleep,” he said, his voice a bit stronger now, maybe what you’d call a croak. “I need more – “
Knock knock knock.
Bernie’s other eye opened, this one even redder. “What?” he said. And then: “Who?”
“Someone’s at the door?” He turned to the bedside clock, maybe a painful movement because he winced and said, “Ow.” Then he squinted at the clock, rubbed his eyes, squinted again. “But it’s only – “
Knock knock knock knock – and even more knocks. That sharp ratta-tat-tat was driving me crazy, and maybe Bernie, too. He put a hand to his head, rose, leaning sideways slightly as though the room was spinning in the other direction, and staggered into the bathroom. Then came peeing sounds – which reminded me I had to go too, in fact pretty soon – running water sounds, and the interesting clitter-clatter that happens when a bottle of pills gets spilled. Not long after that – and meanwhile more knocking, plus Iggy’s muffled yipping – Bernie emerged wearing his polka-dot bathrobe, face scrubbed and hair combed, except for a small stick-out horn-like thing on one side, not very noticeable. Then, holding the robe together with one hand – the belt, I remembered, had been part of a fun tug-of-war game we’d played on Charlie’s last visit, me, Charlie and Bernie ending up in a heap on the floor (but I had the belt, meaning I was the winner, right? Wasn’t that the point of tug-of war?) – then – where was I? – oh, yeah: Bernie moved toward the front door.
Knock knock knock. “Christ Almighty,” Bernie said. “I’m coming.” He turned the knob and pulled – maybe more forcefully than he’d intended – flinging the door open; Bernie lost his grip and the knob thumped hard against the wall. At the same time, he also lost his grip on the polka-dot robe, which fell open.
The blond woman’s eyes, pale green, I thought, but don’t take my word for it – Bernie says I’m not too good with colors – dipped down, widened very slightly, then rose up and took in Bernie’s face, her eyes now narrowing fast. “Perhaps I’ve made a mistake,” she said. Once on the Discovery Channel Bernie and I watched a show about polar bears – hoo, boy – and there’d been this picture of a long pointy icicle, slowly dripping. No icicles in the Valley, of course, but for some reason, the sound of the blond woman’s voice made me think of that picture. Funny how the mind works.
Meanwhile Bernie was blinking and saying, “Um.”
“I was looking for a private detective named Bernie Little,” the woman said.
“Bingo,” said Bernie.
“I beg your pardon?” the woman said.
“Meaning you found him. Me. I’m Bernie Little. And this – “ He turned and gestured at me, polka-dot robe opening again, but only for a moment – “is Chet.” She gave me a look, actually quite a careful one. My tail started wagging. “What can I do for you?” Bernie said.
“I’m Adelina Borghese,” the woman said.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Bernie, extending his hand. Adelina Borghese’s hand remained at her side.
“Didn’t that policeman mention me?” she said. “I thought this was all set up.”
“Ah,” said Bernie. “The client with the ridic – “ He stopped himself. “Uh, come in. Please. The office is – “ He motioned down the hall. Adelina’s gaze followed the movement, paused on a pair of boxers lying on the floor. Bernie noticed. “Um, on vacation,” he said. “The maid.”
We had a maid? So many things I liked about Bernie, and that was just one of them: you learned something new every day. But no time to think about that now. I bolted outside, raced to the rock at the end of the driveway and lifted my leg. At the same time, I heard that yip-yip-yip, and, leg still up, turned my head – I can turn it practically right around backward if I have to – and there was Iggy at his window. Good to see Iggy, but – uh-oh, what was that? He was lifting his leg, too.
Not long after, we were sitting in the office – Adelina Borghese in one of the client chairs, Bernie behind the desk, me beside it. Bernie was dressed now – khakis, tucked-in shirt, loafers – and looked much better. He’d also brewed coffee; loved the smell of coffee, but the taste didn’t do much for me. Water was my drink, although once, out in the desert with some bikers, I’d had a fun evening with beer. But no time to go into that now. Bernie was a great interviewer. His interviewing skills and my nose: if you want my opinion, that’s what raised the Little Detective Agency above the rest. I settled in to watch Bernie work.
“Cream? Sugar?” he said, pouring coffee.
“Black,” said Adelina Borghese.
“Me, too,” said Bernie. “We have something in common.”
See what I mean? Brilliant. Although maybe this woman was going to be a tough customer, because from where I was her lips seemed to purse in a way that said, “Dream on.”
Bernie sipped his coffee, his hand not quite steady. “Ah,” he said. “Hits the spot.”
Adelina Borghese sipped hers, said nothing, and didn’t touch it again.
“I take it you’re the owner of Queenie,” Bernie said.
Now Adelina Borghese’s mouth looked like she’d just tasted something bad. “Queenie?” she said.
“Uh,” said Bernie, “wasn’t that the name of the ri – “ He stopped himself. “What am I saying? Princess, of course. I take it you’re the owner of Princess.”
“Correct,” said Adelina Borghese. “Although I don’t really think of the relationship in that owner slash possession way.”
“More like a team?” Bernie said.
There was a pause, and when Adelina spoke again her voice wasn’t so icy. “You might say that,” she said. “Princess is very special. She’s a great competitor.”
“At what?” said Bernie.
“Dog shows,” Adelina said, her voice refreezing fast. “What kind of briefing did that policeman give you?”
“A good one,” Bernie said. “The competition angle didn’t come up, that’s all.”
“What other angle is there?” said Adelina. “Dog shows are about competition and Princess is like … like Michael Jordan.”
Bernie loved hoops, had lots of old tapes, so I knew about Michael Jordan, but was Adelina expecting us to believe that the little fluffball in the photo could dunk? A basketball was a very difficult kind of ball for me and my kind, as I’d learned, maybe more than once.
“What kind of prize money’s involved?” Bernie said.
“Prize money?” said Adelina.
“If Princess wins.”
“She gets a blue ribbon.”
“What could be better than a blue ribbon? She loves them.”
Bernie smiled, a little smile there and gone very fast. He took another sip of coffee, his hand now steady, I was glad to see. “I look forward to meeting her,” he said. “But I have to warn you Chet and I don’t do much bodyguard work and we’ve never guarded a dog before.”
“Chet?” said Adelina.
“We’re a team, too,” said Bernie.
Adelina bent forward, stared down at me. “Can he be trusted?”
Now Bernie’s voice got a bit icy, too. “What do you mean?”
“Around small dogs,” she said. “He looks big. I don’t recognize the breed. And what’s the story with his ears?”
My ears again? How rude. I didn’t think hers quite matched either. And so what about the odd notch nipped out here and there? Getting into a scrape now and then went with the job, and you should see the other guy. Bernie’s voice grew icier. “There are many private detectives in the Valley,” he said. “I can recommend some if you wish.”
“There’s no goddamn time for – “ Adelina caught herself. “No need for that,” she said. “You come highly recommended. They’ve even heard of you in New York.”
I twisted around to see Bernie’s face: eyebrows up, a look of complete surprise. But he said nothing.
“Are the terms satisfactory?” Adelina said. “Two thousand a day from now till the end of the show?”
Plus expenses. Come on Bernie: plus expenses. But he didn’t say anything, just nodded.
“I suppose you’d like some sort of retainer,” Adelina said.
“Not yet,” said Bernie. Not yet? Why not? “First, we’ve got some questions.” Did we? That was interesting. I waited to hear.
“What sort of questions?” Adelina said.
Bernie started numbering them on his fingers. I loved when he did that! Bernie was always the smartest guy in the room, even if some people missed that. “One,” he said: “Is it customary for show dogs to have bodyguards?”
“No,” said Adelina.
“Two: is it just your custom?”
“No,” she said, “and please don’t number the questions on your fingers. My husband does that and I can’t stand it.”
Bernie’s hands folded up and sank down on the desk. “So there’s a Mr. Borghese?” he said.
“Not exactly,” said Adelina. “My husband is a count.”
Bernie leaned forward. Maybe he thought she’d said something else. “Say again?”
“A count, Mr. Little. A member of the minor European nobility.”
“Ah,” said Bernie. “A conte, in Italian.”
“Correct,” said Adelina.
“Making you a contessa,” said Bernie.
“Let’s not get into any of that,” she said. “You can call me Adelina.”
“And I’ll be Bernie,” said Bernie, with a little laugh, as though he’d cracked a pretty good joke. No laugh from Adelina, and in truth I didn’t get it either. Bernie cleared his throat – I can do that, too, much more noisily – a habit of his that usually meant the failure of whatever had gone before. “It’s not your custom to retain a bodyguard for Princess but you want one now,” he said. “Why?”
Adelina bit her lip. Then, big surprise, her eyes filled with tears. The crying thing: always a bit of a mystery to me. Humans cried sometimes, women more than men – Leda, for example, had had a crying episode every day – but I’d seen Bernie cry once, if crying meant just the tears part with no sound: that was the day Leda packed up all Charlie’s stuff. Adelina’s crying was the same – just tears, no sound. She opened her bag, took out some tissue, dabbed at her eyes; they seemed darker now. “Princess’s life is in danger,” she said.
“Why do you say that?” said Bernie.
Adelina dug into her bag again, handed him a folded sheet of glossy paper. “This came in the mail.” I got up, watched Bernie unfold it, moved around the desk so I could see.
“A page from a magazine?” Bernie said.
“Show Dog World,” said Adelina. She glanced at me and blinked, as though not quite believing her eyes about something, exactly what I had no idea.
I turned my attention back to the glossy page. There was a bit of writing, useless to me, of course, but mostly just a big color photo of Princess on a satin pillow, maybe the same photo I’d seen last night. The difference was that someone had inked in a bulls-eye target over her tiny fluffball head. I had only one thought: we were in business.
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