The Dame that burst into his office Thursday evening was a tall drink of water, legs all the way up, and just about as hysterical as they come. She’d soaked through his handkerchief in one minute flat and left him scrambling for something, anything else. He settled on his tie, whisking it off and handing it over. She didn’t seem to notice the difference.
He frowned, looked concerned, and did his best to sound as absolutely hardboiled as possible. “Now calm down, toots; I can’t very well help you if I can’t understand you.” She wailed. “Easy, doll. Take a breath, let it out real slow and start from the top.”
“The Felt,” she managed, before she dissolved again.
Oh, shit. The nastiest pack of green assholes this side of the green sun. Funny, she didn’t look the type to be mixed up with the Felt – she wasn’t green, to start with. And maybe she wasn’t tangled up with them, but she was crying so much he couldn’t make heads or tails of what she wanted him to do about the Felt.
Might not matter, anyhow. Not like he could do anything about them. Even with his pulchritude stat maxed out, he was no match for them – they were impervious to charm. Practically impervious to bullets, too, now that he thought about it.
The bird was still howling, inconsolable and incomprehensible. He leaned forward onto his desk, hands clasped. “Listen, ma’am, I can’t do a thing about the Felt if you don’t tell me what you want outta them.” She lunged across the desk and grabbed him around the shoulders, still wracked with sobs. He stiffened, patted her on the shoulder. “Uh. There there.”
“They – they – they,” she sobbed. “They killed my husband.” The waterworks started again, worse if that were possible. He looked down at the back of her head, eyebrows raised.
“Toots it oughta be the police handling that, not –”
“You don’t understand!” Well, no, he thought, still patting her shoulder awkwardly. It’s pretty much conjecture at this point, because you’ve basically said three sentences and then cried all over my office. She sat up and dabbed her eyes with his tie. “I – I can’t go to – to the police.”
“Why not?” His mind was off and running. Bootlegger? Smuggler? Embezzlement? Shame the family name? Alright, probably not the last one since he had no idea who she was, but you never knew . . .
“The police –” pause to sob “– the police called it an acci – accidental death.” She looked up, her eyes wet and sparking with anger. “But it was murder.”
“I saw him – tall number, red hat, bright green suit – walking away from the scene.” Crowbar or Trace, then. Need more specifics on the shade of red, unlikely to get them.
He cleared his throat. Careful now, she’s calmed down just enough. Delicate-like. “Sweetheart, if you don’t mind, what was the manner in which your husband expired?”
She blinked at him through red-rimmed eyes. Her mouth opened, those cherry-red pouty lips framing the first syllable, and then she threw her head back, tears springing afresh from her eyes. He frowned and resisted the urge to pull his hat down over his eyes. “You understand I have to ask,” he said, a little louder over her crying.
“I – It was – was a –” sob “ – a crowbar!” Moan, sob. “To the face!”
Oh, so that’s pretty self-explanatory. Crowbar, you sadistic bastard.
“Please, Problem Sleuth, you have to catch him! Prove it was him, bring him to justice!”
“Was your husband involved with the Felt? Why did the police rule it an accident?” he asked, although he knew the answer. Deaths that were obviously caused by the Felt usually fell under one of two categories in the police blotter: ‘accidentals’ or ‘suicides’. It just wasn’t worth the risk.
“He was never involved with their filthy ilk!” she said fiercely, breathless from the crying, her cheeks flushed. In that moment she was striking, despite the bloodshot eyes. Stay professional, Sleuth, just another hysterical dame. “The police knew it was the Felt – they said as much when they thought I wasn’t listening! But they don’t want to deal with it, see? Keep their hands clean of them, protect their own.” She slammed an expertly-manicured hand onto the desk. “That’s why I need you.”
He looked down to his blotter, composed himself. Lady, I don’t do much with the Felt either. Too dangerous.
He looked up, steepled his fingers. “Extra charges for dealing with Felt. I hate to take advantage but the risk involved . . . I’m sure you understa –”
“Name your price.” Wow, okay.
He sat back, one arm draped over the back of his chair. “Sugar I’m gonna need to know if your husband did anything illegal that you knew about. Anything at all, doesn’t have to be related to the Felt.”
She sniffed, dabbed her eyes. Looked down. “He was just a drummer. He played at one of the clubs downtown – Revolution Lounge – every night, never did anything out of line, didn’t even drink.”
Sleuth’s eyes lit up at that. “Revolution? That’s one of the Midnight Crew’s juice joints.”
She scowled through the tears. “I tried to – to talk him out of it. Told him they weren’t nothing but bootleggers and thieves. But it was a steady gig . . . He just wanted to make a living . . .”
“The Crew usually takes care of their own.”
She sniffed. “Not their drummers. Not their employees, either.” Her voice broke. “AP was just the latest – they’ve had a string of employees go missing, turn up – turn up dead.” She broke down again, and this time Sleuth decided that was enough. He stood, walked around his desk, put a hand on her shoulder. “You have to – have to help me. I don’t know what I’ll do. Poor AP, everyone thinkin’ he’s just another sluiced-up drummer that drank himself dead.”
“Now, now.” He guided her to the door. “Gimme a couple weeks, time to track down some leads, I’ll see what I can do.”
“Of course.” Her hand, pale and shaky, plunged into her bra and came up with a blank check. “Money is of no object.”
He blinked, didn’t take the check. “Why don’t you just hang onto that ‘til we’re done here, toots.”
“Nonsense.” She pushed the check and his tie back into his hand. “Fill it out for a small advance if it settles your conscience, but I won’t have you after those dreadful brutes without pay.”
“That’s generous of you, lady but oof.” She threw her arms around his chest, pinning his arms to his sides.
“You’re the first person to take me seriously,” she wept into his chest. “No one else would take the job.” She straightened and smiled wetly down at him. “Thank you. I’ll wait for your call.”
He opened the door for her and watched her walk down the hall, out the exit, hips swinging all the way. He leaned onto the doorframe and scowled. “Because no one else was stupid enough,” he grumbled.
“Stupid enough for what?” he looked to his left, to the chair Pickle Inspector had optimistically set out in the hall for waiting clients. As if they ever had a line. His adoptive daughter was watching him, green eyes wide and bright.
“I didn’t think you’d be here,” was all he said, surprised, stepping aside and motioning for her to come into his office. He shut the door behind her, and pretended not to notice her checking to make sure it wasn’t locked. “You didn’t head home after school today?” He glanced to the clock. “Why so late?”
“Nepeta and I have been assigned to the same group for a project. We thought it prudent to work on it today in the library, and then we walked here together once we finished so that she could meet with Mr. Inspector.” She sat in the chair the hysterical dame had occupied just moments before. “What is it that you are stupid enough to do, Father?”
“Ah, it’s just work stuff, Kanaya. Nothing you need to worry about.” His tie and the check were still crumpled in his hand. He dropped them to the blotter, the tie making a damp little splat. “What kind of project?”
“It is for physics. We are to build a bridge out of nothing but glue and toothpicks, and it is to hold no less than five kilos.” Her eyes narrowed. “You know I am not one to pry but –”
He lit a cigarette. “Five kilos sounds like a lot for toothpicks and glue.”
“With the proper engineering it should not present a problem. Father I hate to be a pest, but I do hope you are not considering taking on a job that is reckless.” She glanced to the check on the blotter. “Although the failure to designate that check for a particular amount suggests you already have.”
He stuffed the check into his desk. “It’s nothing I can’t handle, sweetheart. Just business.” Her expression was very much unconvinced. “Come on, let’s grab something to eat, whaddaya feel like tonight?”
He picked up the tie and made to put it back on before thinking better of it and draping it over the back of his chair to dry. “Just some stuff with the mob, Kanaya, really, nothin’ crazy or anything.” Just going to try to find Crowbar guilty of murder and not die in the process, no worries ahaha.
“Which mob?” She crossed her legs and arms. “I will not move until I am convinced of your safety.”
He sighed. “Sweetheart, let’s just get home, I’m tired and I’ll make you something, how’s that sound? Maybe brownies.”
“I will not be bribed.” Her eyes narrowed more. “This is an uncharacteristic amount of evasion, Father. The mob you have decided to investigate is the Felt, am I correct?” In spite of his annoyance, he swelled a little bit at that. He’d raised her right, couldn’t get a thing past her . . . “Your expression would suggest I am.”
“Not the entire Felt.” She opened her mouth, but he cut her off, standing and grabbing her backpack from the floor. “I’m just looking into it, nothing too crazy. I might not even take the job – I have some leads to track down first but I’m not crazy, sweetheart.” He shrugged. “Besides, the guy worked for the Midnight Crew; might not even be any of my business in the end.”
She raised an eyebrow and stood up, following him out of the office. The door latched behind them. Ah well, he’d deal with it in the morning. “Has that particular group not handled the issue already? I was very much under the impression that the opposing gangs look after their own.”
“Usually they do, usually they do.” He ushered her down the stairs. “S’why I’m just gonna check into things. Don’t want to step on any toes.”
“Perhaps they are unaware.”
“You never know.”
“Have you means of contacting them?” she asked, after they’d left the building and started down the sidewalk for home.
He looked to her, confused. “Why the riot act tonight?”
She shrugged. “Initially it was out of concern, and while I am still concerned, I just think perhaps I could be of help in the matter of making contact with the lesser of the two evils and perhaps expediting the process of laying this to rest.”
“You know how to get ahold of the Midnight Crew,” he said flatly, disbelieving.
They turned onto their block, his arm around her shoulders, and she smirked up at him. “How?”
“Easy. Be waiting for me out front after school tomorrow.”
Sleuth wasn’t what you would call self-conscious, but there was something about standing around outside a middle school that made him uneasy. Like he expected Troll Chris Hansen and 60 Minutes to jump out of a bush and ask him to have a seat any minute now. So he did his best to look parental, huddling close to the group of other adults just in case anyone started asking questions. He sucked his cigarette and looked at the ground, mostly, every once and a while glancing up at the front doors.
Behind him an engine rumbled to a stop and shut off. There was the slam of a door, the snap of a lighter, and a whiff of cigarettes – Cuestick Specials? Sleuth’s eyes widened and his lips clenched around his own cigarette. A newspaper rustled. He spun.
Diamonds Droog, the Midnight Crew’s second-in-command, was just leaning there against his car. He caught Sleuth’s look and raised one eyebrow by about a millimeter. “Afternoon,” Sleuth said quickly. Droog looked back to his paper.
Kanaya you wonderful, devious little girl. Candy corn brownies for all tonight.
He shoved his hands into his pockets and debated his strategy. It wasn’t really an ideal situation, right here in front of a school with other parents standing around. Not the place you want to bring up mob business. There had to be another angle, something innocuous . . .
There. On the back page of the paper, a little article about the accidental death of a drummer outside of a nightclub. It even said the club name in the title, all the easier. He cleared his throat. “Nasty business with that drummer.”
Droog looked up, mildly, and then half-folded the paper to glance at the article. He shrugged. Not the talkative type, apparently. “Accident.”
“Weird place for a crowbar to be laying around for someone to just fall on.” He tensed. The mobster was just looking at him, blank, dead-eyed, not a hint of anything in his face. Sleuth smiled a little.
“Is there something you’d like to talk to me about, Problem Sleuth?”
So much for anonymity. Damn, I’ve seen ‘em around but I didn’t think they knew me . . .
The taller man settled back onto the car and opened the paper again. “I presume so. Tonight, ten o’clock, Casino front desk.”
“Yeah, that would be good. Just a chat, you and me.”
Droog sighed. “I do hope not, for your sake.”
“Oh. Well whatever then.” Droog didn’t respond, and Sleuth turned back around, eyes fixed on the bushes outside the school. He was debating the best way to casually sidle away from the other man when, blessedly, the bell rang and the kids emerged mere moments later.
Kanaya was talking to a girl Sleuth vaguely recognized as probably Droog’s kid, based on her impeccable and smart pinstripe vest. Strange, she’d never come up before, but of course they would know each other; a class can only be so big and they were the same age . . .
“Hi, Daddy!” the other girl quick-stepped to Droog and threw her arms around his middle. Kanaya fell behind, smiling faintly. The shorter troll turned back around and released her guardian, who hadn’t moved but to smile indulgently down at her. “See you tomorrow, Kanaya!”
“Good luck with your bridge, Aradia.” Kanaya pulled up next to Sleuth and smiled up at him, broad and a little smug. “Hello, Father.”
“Not staying late with Nepeta today?” he asked her, as they turned and walked away.
“We are working separately to ascertain the best possible design for the bridge, after which we will brainstorm an ideal structure. Aradia has some interesting things to say about ancient civilizations’ means of constructing stable structures and has provided me with a few leads to follow tonight.” She shook her head. “I am afraid architecture is simply not something that comes easily to me.”
He patted her hair. “I’m sure you’ll be fine, sweetheart.” They turned the corner, and Sleuth heard Droog’s car fire up behind them.
“Did you and Mr. Droog have a good conversation?”
“He’s not the talkative type, exactly.” She was watching him expectantly. “We set up a meeting.”
She beamed. “Excellent.”
“Sweetheart are you sure Droog was the best choice?”
“Yes.” She ticked off the remaining Crewmembers on her fingers. “Mr. Droog was the best choice because Mr. Boxcars does not ever get out of his van unless Karkat is throwing a temper tantrum, Mr. Deuce is too stupid to arrange for any kind of meeting, much less remember it, and Mr. Slick would have stabbed you on sight.”
“Well, dear, when you put it that way.” He sighed. “Candy corn brownies tonight?”
“Will you have time before your meeting?”
“Would I offer if I didn’t?” She smiled. He kissed her on the top of her head. “Thank you, sweetheart.”
“It is the duty of a good daughter,” she said solemnly, “to assist her father in arranging meetings with dastardly and homicidal racketeers.”
His face fell. “Well when you put it that way.”