Actions

Work Header

The Sapphire of Alternia

Chapter Text

It starts with a phone call.

The phone rings in Problem Sleuth’s apartment, first working its way into his dreams as an annoying ringing before he realizes that it’s actually the phone. He wakes up and starts the slow process of pulling his eyes apart. Purple moonlight filters in through the blinds on the window, illuminating the clock on the wall. Three in the morning. Whoever this is better have a damn good reason for calling Problem Sleuth at three in the morning.


Problem Sleuth: Get that phone to stop ringing.

You know how hardboiled it is to get calls at three in the morning. But you’ve been on a stakeout every night for the past few days trying to catch some john in the act of paying for certain services on behalf of his wife. You think it’s funny that his money is paying for the investigation into his affairs.

But sometimes a guy just wants to sleep in until just after sunrise once in a while, like a normal person. But it looks like tonight isn’t gonna be that night.

==>

You roll over in your bed and pick up the phone on your bedside table. There’s a cop on the other end. You ask what his problem is for why he’s calling at three in the morning. He explains there’s a murder, and Anarchy Repressor wants him on the scene. As a second opinion. You ask him why he wants that since he’s never wanted it before.

He says that he’s calling in a favor.

What favor, you grumble and ask him where it is. He tells you. You tell him that you’re on your way and to tell Anarchy Repressor that he better be damn grateful because you’re going to be pretty damn grumpy when you get there. He says okay, but you can tell he’s just humoring you. You hang up.

Problem Sleuth rubs his eyes. He dials the number for his favorite taxi service. The phone gets picked up in the middle of the first ring.

A cheery voice greets him on the other end. “Hello? Transportation Deferrer’s Cab Service.”

“Do you ever sleep?” Problem Sleuth asks somewhat incredulously as he tries to shake himself into consciousness.

“Is that you, Problem Sleuth? I can’t sleep, not with private detectives like you needing rides. It keeps me up at night!” She says. “What do you need?”

“Come pick me up.” Problem Sleuth says. “At the apartment. I’ve got to get to a murder scene before the cops find and take any useful evidence.”

“I’ll be there in thirty seconds.” She hangs up.

Problem Sleuth immediately jumps out of bed. If Transportation Deferrer says she’s going to be somewhere in thirty seconds, she’ll be there in thirty seconds. Problem Sleuth does a quick once-over of his clothing situation. He fell asleep in his clothes. Again. It makes getting out easy, as he just slips on his shoes and overcoat, and his hat, can’t forget his hat, and is out the door.


Problem Sleuth: Lock the door.

What, with your gun?

The notion that you would lock your door with your gun strikes you as reckless and foolhardy.


Halfway down the stairs from his apartment he hears a car horn honking. He exits the building to see a yellow taxi with its wheels spinning and the car moving from side to side as a result. Tranportation Deferrer is honking her horn. “What are you standing there gawking for? Get in the car.”

Problem Sleuth runs to the door because she is liable to get impatient and leave without him. As soon as Problem Sleuth is halfway into the car, the car screeches into a U-turn, throwing Problem Sleuth inside and closing the door. He resituates himself as she asks, “Where am I taking ya, Sleuth?”

“3050 W 47th. And get me there quick.” Problem Sleuth says and immediately regrets.

The city streets are mostly empty, which is good, because Deferrer doesn’t let a thing like traffic stop her from putting her foot down, in a metaphorical as well as quite literal sense, and the absence of traffic makes the ride marginally less terrifying. Getting a lift from her is the only time Problem Sleuth ever wears a seat belt. After tearing through the streets like a rat in a maze with its tail on fire the car nearly tips over as Deferrer throws the handbrake, bringing the car to a stop at the murder scene.

Problem Sleuth unbuckles his seatbelt and makes a hasty exit. He ducks back into the window and pays her. “Thanks. There’s a little extra for making sure I didn’t die.”

“No problem, Sleuth!” Transportation Deferrer giggles. She gives an informal salute and peels off again.

Problem Sleuth turns around and looks at the murder scene. Cops with black and white carapaces are moving around an alley way, with the majority of the focus on a dumpster with an arm hanging out. Draped over and across and between every available surface is yellow caution tape. Sleuth puts a cigarette in his mouth and lights it. Because the best way to gather evidence is to contaminate it with paper ash, but nobody does DNA analysis or anything like that because it’s pointless so it’s not like it matters anyway.

A black carapace in a trenchcoat and tie walks up to him. “You got here fast.”

“There’s a girl who wants me to go places.” Sleuth smirks.

Anarchy Repressor huffs indifferently. “Come on.” The detective leads Problem Sleuth to the dumpster, ducking under no less than three sets of caution tape on the way there. Inside is a dead man with a bullet wound to his gut.

“Has the body been disturbed?” Sleuth asks.

“No, we just got here five minutes ago.” Repressor responds.

“And you didn’t waste any time making sure everybody knows this is a crime scene. Hell, I’m sure the office drones in downtown could look in this direction and know this is police business only.” Sleuth says.

Anarchy Repressor gives him a glare.

“What did you call me here for?”

“Sleuth,” Repressor says, pointing to the body. “My gut instinct tells me this is a hit, and if it’s from one of the gangs, I’d rather you take the lead on this instead of me.”

“Mighty brave of you, Repressor.” Sleuth says. “But if I find the killer you’ll take all the credit.”

“Of course. And then I’ll owe you one.” He smiles. Not like he ever paid back a favor. “Besides, you’re better at getting under the skin of the criminal underworld than I am.”

Sleuth shakes his head. “You’re a damn fine cop, you know that?” He says sarcastically.

Anarchy Repressor is a damn fine cop, but the system is broken. The Midnight Crew’s got a monetary stranglehold on half the prosecutors in the town and the Felt’s got a familial stranglehold on the other half. Sometimes what a cop needs to get the job done is somebody who can operate outside of the rules, and outside of the jurisdiction of a bunch of meddling self-interested corrupt politicians.

Sleuth looks over the body. Anarchy Repressor’s guess was right, but only up to a point. At the very least, it was a hit, because the body had been dumped here from wherever he had been killed. But it doesn’t fit the usual MOs. “The Midnight Crew doesn’t shoot people in the gut. They cut their victims up and then they shoot to kill. Or eat them. But that doesn’t happen very often.” He looked at Repressor, expecting surprise. There wasn’t any. “This guy bled to death in extreme pain. The guy who shoots people only does clean kills, from some sort of pride, and the guy who cuts people up didn’t do anything to this poor fella.”

Repressor looks at him. “What else?”

“The Felt are just brutes. Their victims are all horribly mutilated. There ain’t any finesse in what they do.”

“So, what then? The Midnight Crew didn’t do it, and the Felt didn’t do it?”

“No.” Sleuth says. “If they were involved at all it wasn’t directly. It looks pretty amateurish.” Sleuth shrugs. “Or maybe they suddenly got sloppy for some reason. I don’t really know.”

“Where does that leave us?”

“Nowhere, looks like.”


Problem Sleuth: Make a distraction.

Sleuth turns his head slightly. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“I think somebody’s calling you.” Anarchy Repressor turns towards the parked police cars. Sleuth uses the opportunity to fish around in the victim’s jacket and pulls out a wallet. He quickly pockets it.

“You sure? I don’t hear anything.” Anarchy Repressor turns his gaze back to the victim.

“Huh, my mistake.” Sleuth says. “Does the victim have any ID?” Sleuth asks.

Anarchy Repressor opens the victim’s jacket and looks through the coat pockets. “Looks like this guy’s name is Mysterious Carapace until we know better.”

“Whoever did it must have taken the wallet and ditched it somewhere.” Sleuth says completely straight faced. “Have your men canvas the area looking for it. And tell your traffic cops to keep their eyes open for any dried blood they see tomorrow.”

“In this town?” Anarchy Repressor says in an incredulous tone. “If the city isn’t covered in blood by noon that’s a good day.”

Sleuth smirks. “All they gotta do is look for the stains that look a day old.”

Anarchy Repressor gives a beleaguered look. “I ain’t a super hero, Sleuth, and neither are my men.”

Sleuth shrugs. “What about the pants pockets?” Sleuth asks.

Anarchy Repressor fishes around the pants pockets and finds several notes, all with addresses on them. “A list of addresses. Maybe he was a delivery boy?”

“Delivery boys don’t get shot in the stomach. No, I think this guy was a courier of some sort. Might explain why he was killed.”

“But what for?”

“Beats me. Could be anything.” Sleuth says. “Could’ve been a briefcase full of boondollars or little old ladies’ fine china.”

“Dammit.” Anarchy Repressor swears. “This isn’t helping any.”

Sleuth spreads his arms wide in a shrug. “I don’t know what to tell you, Anarchy Repressor.” Sleuth says. “You need to ID the body. If you can’t do that, then the trail’s gonna go cold faster than this guy here.”

Anarchy Repressor takes a single step back. He looks dissatisfied, and with good reason. Problem Sleuth took the only piece of useful evidence from the scene while Anarchy Repressor wasn’t looking. “Thanks for your help, Problem Sleuth.” He says a bit sarcastically. He puts his hands on the dumpster and looks at the body. “You’ll look into this for me, right?”

“What do you expect me to do more than you’ve done? I got here just as soon as you did. There ain’t anything more I can do that we both didn’t already do looking at this guy right now.”

Anarchy Repressor grimaces. “Just keep your eyes open.”

“Alright.” Sleuth waits a moment. “Does that mean I can go? I’m dead tired and my cases aren’t going to work themselves.”

“Yeah, get outta here.” Anarchy Repressor says, kicking some dirt on the asphalt idly in frustration. “You need a ride?”

“No thanks.” Sleuth says. “I just gotta make a call.”


Problem Sleuth: Whistle for a cab.

And when it came near the license plate said X368 J39. Were you expecting something else? That's always been the license plate for Transporation Deferrer's cab. You don't know why you think this detail is notable in any way right now.

You get in and she takes you back to your apartment, where you promptly fall asleep.



Chapter Text

Problem Sleuth gets out of bed four hours later without a single minute of sleep. He sighs and gets ready for work. After showering and throwing on a fresh pair of clothes he rides the bus to his office.

The door is unlocked, which is no surprise since every time Problem Sleuth tries to lock a door he just blows the lock off for some reason.

He walks inside and turns on the light and ceiling fan and opens the blinds to the window. It’s an actual window. Not one that leads into a crazy imagination land. After Mobster Kingpin died the building was remodeled to better serve the needs of its heroic private detectives, and to give it Euclidean geometry.


Problem Sleuth: Fondly regard group picture.

That was a hell of an adventure. Although you probably should have seen it coming. When your landlord is the main suspect in every case you take, you tend to drop your cases to retain your office. And without cases you can’t pay rent.

What happened was the obvious logical conclusion to that conflict.


Problem Sleuth sits down in his chair and pulls the Mysterious Carapace’s wallet from his coat and puts it on the desk. He opens the wallet and looks at the driver’s license. “Well, Movement Contractor, looks like you’re now Murdered Courier.” Problem Sleuth tears a page out of a notebook and scribbles down the address.

The door to the office opens, and a woman with a white blouse and blue skirt walks in. She’s got a messenger bag full of mail on her side and pressed between her body and arm is a newspaper and a large package. “Can you believe this?” Persevering Maillady asks, kicking the door closed behind her. She puts all her loose items on Problem Sleuth’s desk and sits cross-legged on it. “This is why you should always go with the post office.” She says as she tosses the newspaper in front of him.

Courier found dead in dumpster; police have no leads. And the caption beneath the photo of the chalk outline: call Anarchy Repressor if you have any information. “I know. I was there.”

Persevering Maillady turns her head with surprised eyes. “You were?” She asks. “Did the sight make you swear off private parcel services forevermore?”

Sleuth leans back. “Aren’t you being a little morbid about all of this? A man’s dead, and somebody killed him.” Sleuth playfully scolds. “And I don’t think the quality of his service had to do with why he got a bullet in his gut.”

“Don’tcha think if he was any good at his job he wouldn’t be dead in a dumpster?”

“Now, now, now,” Sleuth says. “That’s blaming the victim. Maybe I should tell Anarchy Repressor he should start looking into fanatical mailworkers as potential suspects.” He jokes.

Maillady puts a hand to her mouth in feigned shock. “You’ve caught me, Problem Sleuth. I surrender. Cuff me.” She says, offering her wrists.

Sleuth smirks. “Maybe later. What do you have for me?”

Maillady rummages through her messenger bag. “A few letters, a few complaints, a few checks.” She picks up the large package she brought in and hands it to Problem Sleuth. “And this.”

Sleuth looks it over. He finds a card. “What is it?”

“Open it up.” She urges.


Problem Sleuth: Examine suspicious package.

The card says happy birthday. You have no idea what a birthday is, nor why anybody would want to be wishing you one.

On the other side it says it’s from Spades Slick.

You think you hear ticking.

PS: Open package.

It’s a time bomb! And it’s almost at zero! This is some birthday present.


Persevering Maillady is laughing up a storm. “You look real hardboiled hiding under your desk like that, Sleuth.” She laughs.

Problem Sleuth peeks up from under his desk, staring hellfury at the incorrigible prankster mailwoman.

“Relax, I disarmed it before I got here.” She says, looking over the sticks of dynamite attached to an alarm clock. She haphazardly throws it back in the box, causing Sleuth to startle. “Don’t worry, I know the return address.” She gives a wicked grin.

Problem Sleuth gets back in his chair. “What’s with all the women I know trying to kill me?” He says aloud, shaking his head.

A light knock on the door catches Sleuth’s attention. “Come in!” He shouts. He puts a cigarette in his mouth.

The door swings open slowly, and white carapaced woman walks in. She’s tall, she’s wearing a fur coat over a stunning white dress, she’s got ankle bracelets on legs that seem to go on forever and an expensive leather purse hanging from her shoulder. Sleuth’s cigarette falls out of his mouth.


Persevering Maillady: Leave in a jealous huff.

You double take between the woman who just walked in and this idiot’s dumbstruck face over and over. So that’s how it is.

You say here’s the rest of the mail and throw it in Sleuth’s face. He blinks but his expression remains unchanged.

You walk to the door and shout goodbye Sleuth before slamming it shut.

==>

Oh, shoot. You forgot the time bomb. You walk back in in a fury, grab it off his desk, and say that you forgot it to hopefully save some face and not look completely embarrassed in the process, and slam the door again on your way out.


Problem Sleuth wasn’t stunned that an incredibly beautiful woman had just walked into his door. That wasn’t it at all. Plenty of beautiful dames had walked into his office and he only stared slack-jawed at the first. He was stunned because it had been a long time since Sleuth had last seen this woman in person. And not five years or ten or twenty. A real long time.

“Problem Sleuth?” She asks in an enunciated alto.

Sleuth stands up out of his chair immediately. “Yes. Wha-“ The word doesn’t seem to want to get out of Sleuth’s mouth. “What can I do for you?”


Problem Sleuth: Kneel before her majesty.

She’s not anybody’s majesty any more. Not in a formal sense. You’ve got a well-trained instinct to want to kneel, and it’s getting tough to resist.


“Can we sit down?” She asks.

The question comes as a complete relief. “Of course. Please.” Sleuth motions to the chair opposite the desk as he takes a seat. Problem Sleuth takes a deep breath. “I didn’t catch your name.”

“It’s Wealthy Quantifier now.” She replies.

“Right. I know that.” Problem Sleuth remembers. Maybe at some point he won’t be stunned wreck. “I’ve seen you in the paper before, at big charity balls and things like that.” He says. “What can I do for you?”

“I require the services of a highly skilled private detective.” Wealthy Quantifier says. “All the others I talked to claimed they were the best, but none of the major gangs talk about them.” She says with a hint of contempt. “They do talk about you, however. Are you as skilled as I am led to believe by the scorn of your peers and enemies alike?”

Sleuth’s smirk is growing by the second. She really knows how to butter a guy up, to push all the right buttons. “Yeah, that’s me. You came to the right place. I am the top problem sleuth in the city. That’s no exaggeration.”

“Excellent.” She says.

“But if you’ll excuse my frankness,” Sleuth says.

“Of course.”

“I don’t like getting flattered when business is involved. Makes me think a client’s going to try and stiff me for money. Or try to get me to take on something suicidal.” Problem Sleuth says, and feels a little ashamed about the backtalk.

Wealthy Quantifier pauses. “If you’ll accept my sincerest apologies, I’ll get to the point.” She says. “I’ve lost something very important to me, and I need you to find it. I am willing to pay very handsomely for its return.”

Sleuth flips open a notebook and grabs a pen. “Alright.” He says. “Can you describe what I’m supposed to be looking for?”

“I cannot.”

Sleuth looks up from the paper. “What?”

“I misspoke.” Wealthy Quantifier says. “I will not. I regret that I must apologize to you again, but I am not comfortable describing the object... so publicly.”

Sleuth flips closed the notebook in annoyance. “How do you expect me to find your mystery object if I don’t know what it is? That’s a pretty basic necessity as far as private detectiving goes.”

“I understand completely.” She slowly and deliberately adjusts the fur coat around her neck. Sleuth can’t help but notice as the coat moves around her chest. “I do have a way for you to find it, however.”

Sleuth sighs.

She pulls a set of keys from her purse. “These are the keys to my home.” She hands a pile of various handguns and tommygu- oh wait, these just stay keys. She hands them to Sleuth. “You should be able to identify the object once there. If you are as good as you say you are.” She says with a subdued smile.

Sleuth flips the keys around his finger. “I’m not a fan of scavenger hunts.”

“How about scavenger hunts that pay well?” She pulls a check book from her purse and a pen. She writes a check and leaves it on the desk. “I understand your normal fee is twenty five dollars per day on the case. I will pay you double in addition to the amount here.” She taps the check. “Would that convince you to look into it for me?”

Sleuth gives a forced smile. “For that much I’d dance in a tutu.” He says, hoping she doesn’t take him up on the offer. “Alright, I’ll look into it. If I do find anything, how am I supposed to get in contact with you?”

She scribbles down a quick set of numbers on an errant scrap of paper. “I will be out of town for several days. Call this number if you discover anything.” She slides the paper over to Sleuth’s hand. He stashes it in his pants pocket. Wealthy Quantifier stands up out of her seat. “I believe our business here is concluded.” She says.

Sleuth escorts her to the door and opens it for her. “I’ll let you know what I find.” He hesitates, then extends his hand. She shakes it in return.

“I wish you luck in your search.” Wealthy Quantifier leaves and Sleuth closes the door behind her.

Problem Sleuth walks to his desk and looks at the check she left. He steps back a bit. She must really want whatever it is found.


Problem Sleuth: Focus on your most profitable cases.

You need to clear your case load. If a dame wants to pay you five hundred dollars up front to go snooping around her house for missing objects then you better focus all your attention on that.

...but you can’t let that murder go unsolved, since Anarchy Repressor does want you to look into it. He starts putting the pressure on if you don’t work for him. Pro bono, of course, the cheap bastard.

Problem Sleuth: Call Ace Dick.

The phone rings a few times. Maybe he can take some of your cases.

Nobody picks up. He must be out working some of his own cases. Or his phone’s dead. Both wouldn’t really surprise you.

Problem Sleuth: Call Pickle Inspector.

He picks up after three rings and says that it’s Pickle Inspector, and that he also inspects more than just pickles. You ask why he doesn’t change his name to something that doesn’t sound ridiculous and need explanation every time he picks up the phone. He says he likes his name.

You tell him that you got a really important case that you just got, and you need to clear your workload. He says sure, what can he do to help. You tell him you’ve got a few cases that are right up his alley. Lots of disconcerting ogling and picture taking, and he doesn’t even have to rough anybody up or get into any shoot outs. He agrees that those do sound right up his alley, and that he’ll be over in a second to pick up the case files.

You tell him that you owe him one, and that one of these days he should call in the favor sometime because you feel guilty about doing this to him all the time. He says that’s not necessary since he just refers cases that sound violent to you anyway but he thanks you for the offer. He hangs up.


Problem Sleuth pulls the case files out of a filing cabinet as Pickle Inspector stoops down into the office. “Hello, Problem Sleuth.” He greets cheerily as he takes his hat off.

“Hey there,” Sleuth says. Sleuth walks over and hands them to Inspector.

“Thanks, Sleuth.” Pickle Inspector says. “How is the Dame?”

“Hysterical.” Sleuth gives a half-smile. “How’s the Broad?”

“Nervous.” He replies. He nods and turns to leave before remembering something. "Did you receive a peculiar phone call a week or so ago?"

Problem Sleuth thinks back. "Not that I can say. Why?"

"No reason." He ducks under the door frame and leaves.

Problem Sleuth stuffs his hands into his pockets for a moment as he thinks about what to do. Then he throws on his coat, stuffs the address to Murdered Courier’s apartment into its pocket, grabs his key, and walks out.

Chapter Text

Problem Sleuth walks to Murdered Courier’s apartment. It’s not far, and a good gumshoe’s gotta walk the streets once in a while, to stay low to the ground. Keep a finger on the pulse of the city. Get gum on his shoes. If he takes a taxi around everywhere, he’ll miss the sights and sounds of the city. It reminds Problem Sleuth that it isn’t all bad in this town, that there are people who don’t cheat on each other and don’t have gambling debts and don’t have blood on their hands.

Everybody in this town has something in common. And it’s good to know there are people who are trying to make something good out of it. It’s a bright, sunny day, and it almost makes him happy.

He stops before a building, and checks the address. This is Murdered Courier’s building. He heads inside and walks up to the fourth floor. He walks through the corridors until he finds Murdered Courier’s apartment. He twists the doorknob, but it’s locked.


Problem Sleuth: Use lockpicking set.

You don’t have a lockpicking set. All you have is this belt full of handguns of various makes and models stuck in your coat. All useful for opening up the chests of surly thugs, but not much good for peacefully unlocking a door.

Since the police are going to eventually make their way here, you don’t really want to let them know you’ve been here. If there’s a broken lock in this town it’s a fair guess you probably had something to do with it.

Problem Sleuth: Use handguns on door lock.

You stick your lockpicking tools into the lock, and jiggle around with it for a few minutes. You manage to get the deadbolt open, but as you pull the tools out they break in the lock. You try to open the door, but the broken bits of metal are jamming the doorknob and preventing it from turning.

You decide you should probably find another way in. You probably shouldn't have bothered trying to unlock the door in the first place.


Problem Sleuth descends to the sidewalk and starts searching the alleys surrounding the building. He finds a fire escape on the north side of the building that leads to Courier’s apartment. He quickly climbs the fire escape.

He peers through the window into the apartment. Looks pretty average. There’s a couch, a radio, a messy kitchen. Problem Sleuth pushes up on the window but there’s a string keeping the window closed. As far as forced entries go, broken strings are much less conspicuous than broken locks. Problem Sleuth pushes harder until the string snaps and the window slides upward. He steps inside.


Problem Sleuth: Examine apartment.

It looks a lot like your apartment, to be honest. You feel kinship with this man for having an apartment uncompromisingly dirty, yet with its own internal organization that only men who don’t care about tidiness can recognize.


Problem Sleuth takes a seat on the couch and starts rummaging through the messy coffee table. There are newspapers days old scattered across it, along with scraps of paper detailing grocery lists, reminders, and doodles. Sleuth looks underneath the table and finds stacks of news magazines from the last decade.

He stops by the front door and looks at the wilting potted plant. There’s a small table holding a phone and some mail. Underneath the phone there’s a note: Call Jenna. Must be some kind of acronym. Sleuth pockets the note, not letting any potential lead or red herring go unpocketed.

Sleuth moves to the kitchen. He opens the refrigerator. There’s some orange juice, milk, eggs. Some gross moldy leftover thing just rotting in there. He looks to the counter. Coffee, bread, dirty plates in the sink, getting washed as needed. He opens the drawers, seeing only pots and pans and plates and silverware. He opens the cupboards, seeing cups and cans and boxes of food.

Sleuth walks into the bathroom. Aside from being dirty, there’s nothing interesting in there. He picks up a can of a substance and wonders what the hell this guy needs shaving cream for before putting it back.

He heads into the bedroom. He looks at the bed. It’s unmade.


Problem Sleuth: Check the mattresses.

From years of honing your hardboiled detective skills you know that if a man is looking to hide something it’s going to be in the mattress.

Wait, this guy was murdered, and you don’t think he was expecting it. Why would he be hiding anything in his own apartment?

You lift up the mattress anyway just to make sure.


Problem Sleuth checks under the mattress and under the bed, and only finds shoes and clothes and other random bits of household detritus that slowly end up under there. A bed has its own peculiar pull on objects around it, and if left unchecked, things will naturally end up there of their own accord.

Problem Sleuth turns his attention towards the desk in the room. He pulls the chair out and sits down. This must have been where the man conducted his business. There’s pens and pencils, papers with numbers and addresses on them, scissors and masking tape. Murdered Courier apparently was worried about shipping dangerous cargo. His hunch was right, although it looks like he couldn’t do anything about it last night despite his caution.

He opens up the drawers, finds check stubs and receipts, until he finds a stack of notebooks. All but one are completely filled with client information. Their phone numbers, the amount paid, the address to, the address from, how urgently the package needed delivering. Sleuth flips through the unfilled one, and looks at the last page with writing on it.

Problem Sleuth hears voices and his head instinctively snaps to the sound. He quickly puts the notebooks back into the drawers and returns the desk as best as he can to the state he found it in. He curls up the unfilled notebook and keeps it in his pocket.

Problem Sleuth goes to the door and listens in. Impatient stomping is followed by deliberate tapping followed by heavy thuds and then barely noticeable scraping.

“is this the place” He hears from the other side.

“Of course it is.”

“then somebody open the goddamn door already”

The doorknob shakes.

“YER BEING TOO GENTLE WITH IT”

“It’s not opening.”

“no shit droog” What are the Midnight Crew doing here? “tear open this damn door boxcars”

“Slow down, Slick. The door’s unlocked, the doorknob’s just jammed.”

“well” Slick asks.

“I’ve got some tweezers; I think I can pull whatever’s jamming it out.”

The doorknob shakes again. Problem Sleuth flips the deadbolt to slow the Midnight Crew down.

“WHATS TAKING YOU SO LONG” Boxcars' deep bass echoes.

“I got what was jamming it out but the door’s locked.” Sleuth hears as he quietly makes his way to the window.

“I THOUGHT YOU SAID IT WASN’T LOCKED?” Clubs Deuce's high tenor asks.

Sleuth carefully exits through the window onto the fire escape. He slowly lowers the window as quietly as possible.

“It wasn’t. Somebody’s already here.” Sleuth hears Diamonds Droog explain.

“LET ME AT IT”

“no get out of the goddamn way ill take care of this” Sleuth finishes closing the window, and watches as a card surfaces from the crack in the door. A two-handed sword cuts off the deadbolt and the door flies open. Sleuth lays down flat on the fire escape beneath the window.


Problem Sleuth: Hide evidence somehow.

What are the Midnight Crew doing here? Are they here to clean up the place before the cops arrive? Are they looking for the murderer on their own?

Whatever the case, you don’t want them to find you or what you’ve already found. You decide it’s probably a good idea to trust in the mail service.

==>

This is an easy decision to make because nobody messes with the mail in this town.

The problem is that you won’t be able to look at your evidence until it gets back to you. But getting it securely in your hands is more important than risking it getting taken away.

You pull out one of many manila envelopes you keep in your coat for just such occasions and stuff Murdered Courier’s client list inside. You seal it close, and think about how you’re going to get to a mail drop box without getting skewered by a deck of playing cards.

Problem Sleuth: Be Clubs Deuce.

You are now Spades Slick.

Whoever this fucker is can pull an impressive disappearing act. But you’re looking real hard to notice anything because you’ll be damned if you let Droog find out where this guy went before you.

Oh, goddammit. He’s already noticed something.


Problem Sleuth nestles himself as close to the brick wall as possible, but the window opens suddenly and a classy man in a suit pops his head out, searching left and right before quickly looking down. He smiles. A frigid rock hits the bottom of Sleuth’s stomach.

“Hello, Problem Sleuth.” He says, icicles practically falling off his voice.

Problem Sleuth gives his best smile. “Nice to see you, Diamonds Droog.”

Problem Sleuth pulls his key out of his pocket. Diamonds Droog ducks back inside as a few new keyholes get made in the brick behind him.

Problem Sleuth rolls up and starts leaping down the flights of the fire escape. He catches sight of an enormous black blur falling down to the asphalt below, and as it smashes into the ground the fire escape shakes. He looks up to see Diamonds Droog holding two cards in his hand, firing both guns at the fleeing private detective. The fire escape sparks as bullets ricochet of the iron.

Hearts Boxcars is waiting at the bottom of the fire escape. Problem Sleuth pulls his key ring out and feels the drum barrel rapidly empty out of bullets. Hearts Boxcars picks up a dumpster as cover, and throws it at the fire escape during a break in fire. Boxcars bellows as the escape busts off its bottom anchors, only to realize Sleuth is already running down the alley the opposite way.

Problem Sleuth turns a corner and falls onto his side as he leaps out of the way of a thrown card that wobbles as it sticks in the bricks behind him. Problem Sleuth quickly picks himself up.

“ive been waiting to do this a long time” Slick says, his deck of cards getting tossed between his hands.

Sleuth pulls the key out of his pocket and points it at Slick. He moves closer and starts circling around Slick. “There’s no reason we can’t just talk this all out.”

“we aint at the ask questions later part yet” Slick settles on his Butterfly Effect knife, flicking it around in his hand. He circles around Sleuth the opposite way.

“For my part,” Slueth says, continuing to circle. “I think we could use a nice, long chat between us. It’s been forever since we last talked. How you been, Slick?”

“shut your fucking trap” Slick says. He grips the Butterfly Effect knife, ready to strike as his feet keep circling around Problem Sleuth.

“Aww, you don’t want to talk? That’s a shame.” Problem Sleuth says. He pockets his key, turns around and runs towards the street.

“oh goddammit” Slick swears.


Clubs Deuce: Catch Problem Sleuth and prove you’re a useful member of the Midnight Crew.

You use your Short Guy Skedaddle, the innate ability for all short sidekicks to run around in a really zany but very fast manner, to catch up to Sleuth.

==>

Problem Sleuth turns around and kicks you in the face.


Problem Sleuth turns a street corner and runs towards a mailbox. He throws the manila envelope inside and keeps running. He looks over his shoulder. He smiles. The Midnight Crew didn’t see his postal drop.

A cab coming down the street from the opposite direction honks its horn. It pulls a U turn in the middle of heavy traffic, and skids alongside Problem Sleuth. A charming black carapace winks her white eyes at Problem Sleuth. “Need a ride?”

Problem Sleuth gets in the back seat. “Just drive. Get me anywhere but here.”


Midnight Crew: Let Problem Sleuth get away.

Diamonds Droog walks up to Spades Slick’s side and pulls the cigarette stub out of his mouth. “That was a smart move, Slick, letting him get away. We can get him later once he knows more.”

Spades Slick grunts unintelligibly and puts a knife at Droog’s throat. “i oughtta let out your blood all over your goddamn suits for saying i let that bastard get away”

Droog drops the stub on the asphalt and grinds it with his shoe. “Look, Slick, sometimes I’m just trying to give you a way to save face.” Droog walks away.


Midnight Crew: Be Problem Sleuth again.

“So what are you in a hurry for?” Transportation Deferrer asks.

“Oh, you know. The usual.” Sleuth says, adjusting his hat.

“Trouble with the law, huh.” She comments.

“You could say that.” Sleuth sits forward and puts his hands on the front seat. “I appreciate you getting my ass out of the fire back there, but here’s the thing. If the Midnight Crew is looking for the same things I am, things are going to get pretty dangerous for me.”

“What’s your point?”

Sleuth takes a breath. “I don’t want you getting dragged into this.”

Deferrer looks back at Sleuth through the rearview mirror. “Is that worry, Problem Sleuth? Are you worried about me?” She begins laughing. “I’ve got the fastest cab and the heaviest foot in all the city and you’re worried about me getting involved in your hardboiled scuffles?”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.” Problem Sleuth sits back a bit sheepishly. “Just, try to keep your distance for a little while. I’ll be more than happy to let you drive me around everywhere once things calm down again.”

Transportation Deferrer sighs. “When you put it like that, how can I refuse?” She says. “I’ll try to stay out of trouble. Because you asked so nicely.” She blows him a kiss through the rear view mirror.

“Thanks.”

“So, where’re you going, Sleuth? My place or yours?”

Problem Sleuth shakes his head with a smirk on his face as he thinks about what to do. “Neither. Wealthy Quantifier’s.” He says as he pulls the address out of his pocket and hands it to Deferrer.

“Ooooh.” She mocks, grabbing the address over her shoulder. “Getting the really classy ones, aren’tcha?”

Chapter Text

Transportation Deferrer takes Problem Sleuth to the outskirts of the city to a suburb full of large homes. The place is officially and blandly named Brightland Heights, but informally, and derisively, it’s known as New Prospit. It doesn’t sit right with Sleuth that the former elite would segregate themselves away like this. They weren’t members of the aristocracy anymore. Not formally anyway, and it bugged Sleuth that they still treated themselves like they were.

“These are some fancy houses.” Deferrer comments as she looks at the homes passing by. “You think I’ll ever live in one of them?”

“You’d have to take a hundred fares a day forever.” Problem Sleuth says, looking out the window.

“I’ve got the time.”

“And there’s no guarantee that the property value isn’t going to go up while you’re working on it.”

“That’s a shame. Looks like I’ll never get the chance to host a fancy party with...” She thinks for a moment. “Fancy stuff.” She gives an exaggerated sigh. “You should take me to one to cheer me up.”

“I got nothing to wear!” Sleuth chuckles. “I’ve only got cheap suits and coats. I can’t go to a party looking like this. I’d get laughed out by all the wine drinking, monocle wearing socialites.” Problem Sleuth says.

“That’s a shame too. I think you’d look great with a top hat and waxed moustache.” She says, putting a hand on her head and a finger on her lip in demonstration.

Problem Sleuth shakes his head. “Nah, the life of a rich man ain’t for me.”

“I think I know what you mean.” Transportation Deferrer says in a suddenly serious tone. “All I want to do is drive people around. And the strangest thing is, I’m perfectly happy doing that. I don’t think I could be a rich person even if I wanted to.”

Problem Sleuth says nothing in response.

“You know what I mean?”

“Yeah,” He finally says. “I do.”

Transporation Deferrer winds her way through the neighborhood streets at leisurely pace. (“I don’t want to run anyone over!”) They eventually reach Wealthy Quantifier’s home. Her home does little to distinguish itself from the rest in the neighborhood. Sleuth feels an odd bit of pride. She's the tip-top of the former elite and she's got a house just like everybody else, although it's still in the richest part of town full of people just like her. Sleuth wonders if she has a choice in the matter, considering her husband.

Sleuth gets out of the cab, and is surprised that Transportation Deferrer has done the same. “What? I’m just going to stay by the car. I’m not going to get in the way of your hardboiled sleuthing inside.”

“I thought you agreed you’d try to keep your distance for a little while?”

“But who’s gonna give you a ride back from way out here?” She asks as she lights a cigarette.

“You may be the best one, but you ain’t the only taxi driver in this city.” Sleuth explains. “I’ll be fine, don’t worry about it. What could happen out here?” Sleuth neglects to mention that he’s worried they might’ve been tailed here. The Midnight Crew don’t let insults like the one Sleuth just gave them go unanswered. But it’s not just the Midnight Crew he’s worried about either. Causing trouble attracts attention, usually of the gun-toting mobster type.

Transportation Deferrer shakes her head from side to side in thought. “Alright.” She gets back in the cab and Sleuth hands her the fare. “Don’t miss me too much.” She says as she turns the cab around.

Sleuth waves goodbye, and then turns to the house. He fumbles around in his pockets and pulls out Wealthy Quantifier’s keys. He flips them around until he finds one he thinks is the gate key, and tests it out.

Problem Sleuth: Actually unlock something.

This is amazing! What an indescribable feeling! You had no idea what you were missing out on. Is this how everybody feels whenever they unlock something?

You feel truly blessed to have finally experienced, no, accomplished, a successful unlocking.

Sleuth walks the path to the front door, looking for the key that might open it. He picks one out and walks up the steps to the patio. He reaches to unlock the door.

But it’s already cracked open. Sleuth looks behind him. Things he doesn’t expect make him nervous, and somebody getting to his client’s house before he does is one of them. He searches around the neighborhood. Nothing catches his eye. Just a bunch of lawns and fences and houses. He puts Wealthy Quantifier’s keys in his pocket and draws his gun. He gives the door a push, and lets its inertia open itself.

He steps inside. Whoever was here is long gone. Sleuth puts his key away. He relaxes, and looks just inside the entrance. Plaster walls, finely wrought iron, the occasional hint of gold, and hardwood floors even. Exquisite craftsmanship, all over. He nearly knocks over a coat stand marveling at it. This is a magnificent house.

Sleuth walks into the sitting room. He starts to get an idea of what he’s supposed to find. The place has been robbed, and these robbers, they were a tasteful bunch. There are books missing from bookcases, flowers missing their vases, fine china missing from its cabinet. Anything that wasn’t valuable was left behind, and the robbers either knew what to look for or had a very good eye.

Sleuth walks to the fireplace and looks at the mantel. There are several photos of Wealthy Quantifier and other carapaces, from the days she was a queen to when she walked wastelands and to when she became a citydweller. It was an interesting metamorphosis, one that many people had partaken in. It was a bit unusual to display all of the stages equally, though.

Sleuth walks to the dining room. The chandelier is missing, and the chairs have been removed. He walks into the kitchen. Drawers of silverware, or goldenware as the case may be, had been emptied out.

He walks down the corridor leading from the front entrance, entering the basement. He pulls a cord and a light flicks on. A wine cellar. And all the good ones are taken. He tugs the cord.

He walks back up and enters one of the doors off the corridor. It has a black and white checkerboard tile floor, and it looked like it was some kind of memorial room. Sleuth steps back out and closes the door immediately.

He walks into the other door and sees the study. About half the books are gone. The ones remaining had all been written after the city had been built. The ones missing must have been from the dead civilization that used to call this planet home. All priceless and irreplaceable, at least the original copies.

Problem Sleuth walks up the stairs to the second floor. He sees an undisturbed bathroom, and then checks the bedroom. The drawers to the bedside tables had been emptied out, but nothing taken from them as far as he can tell. He moves to the walk-in closet. Unmentionables are scattered about in between dresses and coats and blouses and skirts. Sleuth feels uncomfortable, like he's intruding. This is private stuff lying around.

He sees a safe. The lock has been smashed off and the door pried open by crowbar. Sleuth moves in to examine it closer. Inside are some important documents about Wealthy Quantifier, but that’s all there is inside. A safe of this size has to hold more than just documents. He turns away and starts pushing clothes around. He sees a small glint and kneels down to pick it up. It’s a small diamond. Jewelry. Sleuth pockets the diamond and walks out of the closet. His search completed, Sleuth descends to the first floor.

Sleuth thinks. Wealthy Quantifier wanted him to find something, as in, one thing, and not several different things. So if she needs his help, what she’s lost must be truly irreplaceable. Probably something that was stored in that safe. Sleuth wanders around the house once again, hoping to pick up on something he missed.

As he’s looking over the sitting room, he takes a look at the photos again. He grabs a frame holding a photograph of her, taken recently or a few years ago, or whenever she started living in the city. It’s a group photo for some gala or charity ball or whatever it is rich philanthropic carapaces do in their free time. She’s wearing a beautiful white dress that goes down to her ankles. Her shoulders are bare, and she’s wearing a necklace of some sort.

Sleuth takes a closer look at another photograph, this one of a city under construction behind her. Sleuth is surprised to see Spades Slick standing beside her, along with a few other carapaces. It’s an obvious publicity shot, as they’re both wearing hard hats and suits and holding shovels they obviously haven’t used. Spades Slick’s suit has spades symbol sewn just above the heart, and the bastard’s wearing a tie that’s been moved off-center through excessive fidgeting. Wealthy Quantifier’s shirt has one button open, revealing a necklace underneath.

Sleuth looks at a photo of her when she wandered the wasteland. This one was snapped without her knowledge, as she’s huddled next to a fire trying to stoke it. She isn’t wearing any jewelry.

Sleuth looks at a photo of when she was queen. She proudly bears the visage of the Speaker of the Vast Croak, along with an additional head, several mouths, fairy wings, spider mandibles, crab claws, centaur legs, a moustache, bull horns, and an assortment of other frightening features that she manages to make look elegant with brightly colored clothes. It’s a recent photo, which doesn’t make much sense to Sleuth.

He focuses his attention to the necklace she was wearing in the latest two stages of her life, constructor and city dweller.

Problem Sleuth: Remember obvious detail.

Wealthy Quantifier wasn’t wearing her necklace when she visited your office this morning, you big dumb dumb!

She certainly made a point to show you, what with how she practically stuck her chest in your face and said, look at the absence of jewelry on my gorgeous neck.

Well, she didn’t do exactly that. It was a lot more subtle.

Sleuth knew this necklace, or heard about it. He seemed to recall a piece in the paper a while ago about influential persons, and Wealthy Quantifier was interviewed at one point. She talked about several different topics, and the subject of the necklace around her neck came up.

She said that it was a relic from the dead civilization that inhabited this planet previously, a small piece of ivory carved from a trunkbeast strung to a necklace of pearls. Situated on top of the ivory was a brilliant sapphire. She said that it was a gift to the empress of the dead civilization; a peace offering from the landed nobility to the aquatic nobility early in the civilization’s history. The empress was evidently offended that such a small jewel was being presented to her as an accord, and had the whole entourage executed in front of her. According to this legend, the royal carpet to the throne of the empress is a rainbow leading to her feet in remembrance, and a reminder, of this event.

Wealthy Quantifier said she found it in the wasteland completely by accident, and only knows the legend through conversation with the surviving twelve members of that civilization.

Sleuth remembers the name.

The Sapphire of Alternia.

That was a truly irreplaceable artifact. The best craftsmanship a dead race has to offer, with a giant, smacking, priceless gem right on top. Who knows how much it was worth. Probably a lifetime of luxurious living. Sleuth can understand why Wealthy Quantifier hired him. And why she left town while he looked.

Sleuth fishes around his pockets, and finds Wealthy Quantifier’s number. He finds a phone and dials the number. The phone rings several times. Confirmation that this precious artifact is what he’s supposed to be looking for would be nice, and it would certainly make the process easier. If it’s stolen, Sleuth could drop its name anywhere in the city and he’d have an army of goons following him around, to make sure he didn’t get close. But armies of goons work both ways. Just shake down a few tails and you’ll eventually know who hired them.

No one answers. Sleuth hangs up. How is he supposed to get into contact with her if she doesn’t answer on her end? Sleuth dials again. Again, no answer. Maybe there’s somebody who knows how to get into contact with her, or at least confirm that that’s the number he’s supposed to call. Her husband, Wallstreet Keynoter, springs to Sleuth’s mind.

Sleuth dials the number to a taxi service. Not his favorite, of course, but one he wouldn’t mind if the driver got shot up. He was a bore anyway. He arranges the ride and hangs up the phone.

He walks to the door and picks up his hat off the coat stand. He didn’t remember putting his hat on the coat stand, although the chilly feeling he just realized his head’s been feeling seems to indicate that yes, he did, in fact, put his hat on the coat stand. He puts his hat back on, head nice and warm.

Sleuth walks outside the house, and locks the door behind him.

==>

How do people think this is ordinary? This is the most wondrous thing you’ve seen today! No, in a week! A year!

Problem Sleuth locks the gate and waits about ten minutes in front of Wealthy Quantifier’s house. A halfway decent taxi service would’ve been here in a minute.

A police patrol car rolls up to the house. Two cops exit the car and walk to Sleuth.

“What are you doing on these premises?” The female one asks.

Sleuth holds up Wealthy Quantifier’s keys and shakes them. “I’ve been invited.”

The male cop stops. “We received calls about a mysterious person entering this home. Would you like to tell us what you were doing in there?”

The cab rolls up. “I’d love to, but here’s my ride.” He opens the back door to the cab. “Nice chatting with ya.” He says with a bit of a sneer. Problem Sleuth gets inside.

He tells the taxi driver to take him downtown. The ride is awful. The cab driver barely speaks a word, and when he does, it’s about his wife. “She’s great,” he says. “She made me this sweater,” he says. It’s all fantastically sweet and completely boring.

Something interesting happens along the way. About halfway to downtown, a police car flashes its light behind the cab. “What does this guy want?” The cab driver says. The taxi pulls over to the side of the road and a cop walks up to the car, and looks through the rear passenger window. He signals to roll the window down. Problem Sleuth rolls it down at a deliberately slow pace with a smirk on his face.

“Problem Sleuth?” The officer asks.

“What’s it to you?” Problem Sleuth asks.

“We’d appreciate it if you’d come with us.” He explains.

Problem Sleuth looks at the cab driver. He looks back at Problem Sleuth. “And I’d appreciate if I didn’t. Are you going to make me?”

“It’s Anarchy Repressor.” The cop says. “He wants to talk to you. He says you’re doing a favor for him.”

Problem Sleuth rolls his head back onto the seat. He opens his wallet and pays the cab driver. “Thanks for keeping the meter running while we were stopped.” He steps out of the car, hands in pockets. The cops lead him to the police car, where he takes a seat in the back.

“To the station?” Problem Sleuth asks as the car gets rolling.

“To the station.” The passenger side cop confirms.

Chapter Text

The ride to the police station is completely silent. The cops have no interest in talking to private detectives, which suits Problem Sleuth just perfectly because he has no interest in talking to them. They pull over at the station, and Sleuth steps outside.

“Follow me.” One of the cops says.

“I know the way.” Problem Sleuth brushes past the cop.

Problem Sleuth walks past the reception desk, allowing the cops behind him to handle the protests from the officers working the desk. He strides past busy desks of paperwork and into the back where the offices of the head detectives are.

Anarchy Repressor’s office. Problem Sleuth has been in this room plenty of times, never by choice. The detective always wants to have a word with Problem Sleuth. Always wants to know what he’s working on. Always tells him they’re on the same team. Always tells him he owes Sleuth one. It stinks in there. And not just of sweaty men and cheap cologne. Sleuth walks in without knocking.

Anarchy Repressor and a few men are discussing Murdered Courier’s case. He turns to Problem Sleuth. “Problem Sleuth. Did you get any sleep?” He says as he sits in his chair.

“No thanks to you.” Problem Sleuth responds.

“So,” Anarchy Repressor starts. “Did you look into the murder like I asked?”

“Nah.” Sleuth puts a cigarette in his mouth. Maybe the smoke will help with the smell.

“There’s no smoking in here.” One of Repressor’s detectives points out.

Sleuth shoots a glare at the man from beneath his brow as he’s lighting the cigarette. He blows a large cloud of smoke in defiance. “I decided to take a nap at my desk. Sorry, Repressor. I don’t know anything more than I did when I left the scene.”

“Really.” He says more than asks. Anarchy Repressor pulls a wallet out of his desk and throws it on the surface. “What’s this?”

Sleuth looks at Repressor like he’s stupid. “It’s a wallet.” He says. “Yours?”

“I should ask you.” Repressor says. “I found it in your office.”

“Hey.” Sleuth points a finger at Repressor. “You don’t have any business in my office.”

“Police investigations are my business, Sleuth.” Repressor half shouts. “You want to explain what Movement Contractor’s wallet was doing in your office, Problem Sleuth?”

Problem Sleuth takes a moment. “I was gonna give it to you later.” Sleuth gives his best smile.

“The way we see it-“ One of the detectives pipes up.

“Shut up.” Anarchy Repressor snaps. “Did you shoot him, Sleuth?” Repressor asks.

Sleuth raises a brow. “So this is how it’s gonna be, huh, Repressor?”

“Answer the damn question.”

“No, and you’re a terrible cop for thinking it.”

“I’ll lay it straight for you, Sleuth.” Anarchy Repressor stands up and walks to Sleuth.

“Good.” Sleuth says annoyed. “I don’t like all this dancing around.”

“You’re the only person with ties to the victim.” Anarchy Repressor says to Sleuth’s face. “We didn’t find the wallet at the scene. Then we find it at your office. That puts you at the scene of the crime.” Repressor pauses. “More than enough to put you away.”

Sleuth takes a breath and blows smoke in Repressor’s face. “Is that what you think.” He says, more as a statement. “I always carry my key so that’s means. My alibi won’t hold in court so that’s opportunity. But half this town fits those two.” Sleuth says. “So what’s the motive?”

“Whatever the courier was carrying.” A detective pipes up.

“I told you to shut up!” Repressor shouts. “Everybody get out.” The detectives look at each other. “Are you deaf? Get out of here. I can deal with private eyes with bad attitudes all on my own. I don’t need a cheerleading squad.”

The detectives shuffle out of the room. They glare at Problem Sleuth on their way out. Anarchy Repressor slams the door behind them. As soon as they’re gone Anarchy Repressor’s posture relaxes.

“It smells terrible in here with them around.” Sleuth says, pulling a fresh cigarette out of his pack. “You know what it smells like?”

“Like indifference?” Repressor takes the cigarette.

“Yeah.” Sleuth says, lighting it for Repressor. “And ambition. Like they all want your job, and don’t care how they get it.”

Repressor takes a puff from the cigarette.

“Now that the kids are out of the room,” Sleuth says. "What'd you really bring me here for?

“I’ve got a problem. I hear you can help me with those.”

Sleuth rolls his eyes.

“Do you know who I got a call from today?” Sleuth shakes his head. “I got a call from Wellmannered Vicemayor. The deputy mayor, can you believe it? And you know what he tells me?” Sleuth shakes his head again. “He says,” Anarchy Repressor stands up straight and curls his finger and thumb around his eye in a mock-monocle. “‘Anarchy Repressor, I think you should solve the murder of that courier quickly.’” He says, mocking the deputy mayor’s voice.

“So what?” Sleuth asks. “If you want to do your job right you can’t speed these things up.”

“That’s what I told him. He repeated himself, said I should close it quickly. He made it very clear.”

“I see.” Sleuth says. “So I’m your fall guy.”

Anarchy Repressor frowns. “You’re my fall guy.”

Sleuth waits. “But...?”

“But I know you didn’t kill that courier. You sure as hell halted the investigation before it started, but you didn’t kill him. I don’t like throwing innocent men behind bars.” Anarchy Repressor says. “The deputy mayor’s just a stooge. Whoever’s telling him what to do, they want somebody behind bars and they don’t care who it is. I’m sorry, Sleuth, but that somebody’s gotta be you.” He finishes. “Unless...”

“Let me guess. I find the murderer.”

“You’re a smart guy, Sleuth.”

“I think I’m gonna stop doing you favors. You ask me to look into murders and then you try and pin them on me.” Sleuth sighs. “You run down those addresses?”

“Yeah.” Anarchy Repressor says. “We didn’t learn anything about what he might’ve been carrying; all the addresses led to homes or workplaces, and everybody we caught at the addresses all said they got their packages. We did learn who the victim was.”

“Murdered Courier.”

“What? No. Movement Contractor. Though that is an appropriate name for him now.” Repressor says. “But as soon as we tracked down his address through the phone book, we realized that there were already cops on the scene dealing with a shoot out. Your handiwork?”

Sleuth looks over his trenchcoat. “No bullet holes. Can’t say if I’ve been in any shootouts today.”

“Right.” Repressor says. “The place had already been ransacked by the Midnight Crew. If there was anything useful to find, Diamonds Droog stuffed it in his brawlsoleum.” Repressor finishes. “That’s my side of the story, now what’s yours?”

“I went to the man’s apartment first thing in the morning. The Midnight Crew got there not much longer after me. I found a client list and mailed it to myself.”

“Why?”

“’Cause nobody messes with the mail in this town.” Sleuth responds. “What, you hit your head tripping over your caution tape?”

Repressor motions him to continue. “And?”

“And what? That’s it. I got to the place first and bagged some evidence, which I’ll tell you right now, I’m going to need if I’m gonna have any chance of solving this case.”

“How’d the Midnight Crew get there so fast?” Repressor asks.

“You say you ran the addresses?”

“Yeah.”

“When’d you have your men start doing that?”

“First thing in the morning.”

“I’ll bet you,” Sleuth says. “That my first thing in the morning is later than yours.”

A realization dawns on Anarchy Repressor’s face. “One of my detectives is dirty.”

“Seems that way.” Sleuth says. “When did you search my office?”

“After we found the apartment ransacked, one of my men suggested that we see if you found anything yet. I went to your office, didn’t find you there, but I did find the wallet. So I sent out word to the traffic cops to find you and take you here.”

“Not surprising. The Midnight Crew probably told their man after I crashed their party.” Sleuth says. “You gonna be able to do anything about that?”

Anarchy Repressor shakes his head. “I don’t think so. I don’t know who to trust in internal affairs to handle this. I’ll just have to work around him somehow.” Anarchy Repressor says. “But look, Sleuth. Even if they’re not dirty, the rest of my men are more than willing to blindly follow orders and not ask questions.”

“Sounds like somebody I know.”

“I don’t think I can give you too much time, or else my men are going to get antsy ignoring you when no other leads are turning up. Then I'll be out of a job and someone who doesn't do you any favors will be head of the case." Sleuth laughs at the mention of favors. "A week. Probably less. Once that point gets here, well, I’ll have to throw your ass in the slammer.”

Sleuth blows some smoke out. “Yeah, I ain’t ever doing you a favor again. Not until you start paying up on them.”

Anarchy Repressor shrugs. “That’s just how it is.”

“Is that all?” Sleuth asks.

“Yeah.” Repressor says. He gets up and opens the door and lets Sleuth out. “He’s not our man.” He says to the detectives.

Sleuth walks out and pats the shoulder of one of the detectives. “Keep up the good work.” He says with a smile. He walks towards the exit.

“How do you figure he’s not our man?” He hears the detectives arguing behind him.

“If Problem Sleuth wanted to kill a man he’d fill him full of lead and throw him through the station doors daring us to say he did it.” Anarchy Repressor explains. “Single bullets aren’t his style.”

“That’s bullshit, Captain.”

“If it is then we know where to find him!”

Problem Sleuth walks outside the station and takes a breath. It was stuffy in there. Hard to breathe with so much lazy incompetence filling the air.

Problem Sleuth: Check the time.

You’ve been all over this town today. It’s getting late. If you want to catch Wallstreet Keynoter before he heads home for the night you better get to where he works quick.

If it wasn’t for lazy meddling cops you would’ve been there by now.

Problem Sleuth: Get to Wallstreet Keynoter’s workplace.

There isn’t a cab or a payphone nearby. But the office building isn’t too far away. Twenty blocks or so. Maybe Wallstreet Keynoter is working late tonight, and you’ll catch him as he’s leaving.

It’ll give you a chance to think, at least.

Problem Sleuth starts walking, hands tucked into his coat pockets. He looks up in the sky. The sun is hanging low in the sky, and the skyscrapers he heads towards cast sharp shadows onto each other. The sky is red from the sun, giving everything a dim red tint.

What do the Midnight Crew want? Anarchy Repressor’s dirty man probably tipped them off about Problem Sleuth’s wild speculation about what the courier was carrying, and they got interested at the prospect of it being something valuable. Last time he runs his mouth at a murder scene. Although since he’s working on a guess just as much as they are, maybe they know something he doesn’t. He’ll have to ask one of them somehow. Use some of his Sleuth diplomacy to get some answers.

Problem Sleuth loses himself in thought as he walks towards the gleaming skyscrapers comprising the downtown of the city. As the financial sector of the city, perfectly respectable sums of money traveled through the towers, being traded and gained and lost throughout the day, but that wasn’t where the real money was. Though it was where the honest money was made, though there are differing opinions on that matter.

By the time Problem Sleuth reaches Wallstreet Keynoter’s building, the sun has set and the building is closed for the day. He stares up from the ground level. It houses Keynote Bank, and the building takes its name after the company that owns it and funded its construction. It was one of the first buildings constructed after the Midnight Crew gave up urban planning to people less interested in putting a secret gambling den on every corner and racing tracks in the middle of residential areas.

Office workers and secretaries and bankers and accountants are still leaving the building after its closing. Problem Sleuth grabs the door as a man exits. Problem Sleuth walks to the receptionist.

“Excuse me, is Wallstreet Keynoter still in the building?” He asks.

“No, he left a while ago.” A tall white carapace in an expensive striped suit holding a briefcase and coat over his arm leans on to the receptionist’s desk. He offers his hand for a shake. “How you been, Problem Sleuth?” He asks with a smile.

Problem Sleuth grabs the hand. “Damn, I haven’t seen you in forever. I forget what you go by now.”

“Litigious Lawyer.” He says. “What brings you to this part of town?”

“I need to speak with Wallstreet Keynoter.”

“The big man?” Lawyer asks. “Have you reconsidered?”

“What?”

Litigious Lawyer looks confused. Problem Sleuth looks confused right back. “Oh, sorry. What am I talking about. Things have been hectic for me recently. I think I must have mixed you up with someone else.” Lawyer explains. “Sorry about that. What do you need to see the big man for? I can get you in to see him, easy.”

Problem Sleuth pushes off from the counter. “The details are private. I’m in the middle of a case.” Sleuth says. “You understand.”

“Of course I do.” Lawyer says. “Listen, swing by anytime tomorrow. I’ll tell the big man you’re coming, and you should be able to see him in less than five minutes.”

Problem Sleuth chuckles. “I guess it’s good to have old friends in high places.”

“Anything for you, Sleuth. Hey,” Litigious Lawyer touches Sleuth on the shoulder. “You want to catch up? Get a drink, maybe? It’s been a while. I only hear about you whenever you shoot somebody and it ends up in the papers. I’d like to hear what my old friend and comrade’s been up to from his own mouth for a change.”

Sleuth shrugs and puts his hands in his pockets. “Things have been pretty hectic for me too. I’m working some cases. Let’s just say, they’re very interesting.” Sleuth smirks.

“I see what you’re saying, Sleuth.” He says. “It’s getting dark. You got a way to get home?”

“’Fraid I don’t.”

Litigious Lawyer turns to the receptionist. “Call this man a taxi, the best one in town.” He turns back to Sleuth. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Sleuth.” He offers a hand for a shake. Sleuth grabs it. “Keep yourself safe out there.”

Litigious Lawyer walks out of the building and into a waiting taxi. It’s not a surprise to Sleuth that he works here. He was always attached to Wallstreet Keynoter, even before he took that name.

“Sir, the taxi is on its way.” The receptionist tells him. He nods and walks out the door. In a few minutes the taxi rolls up to the building. The windows roll down, and Sleuth expects to see the best cab driver in town.

It’s nobody he recognizes. “Where am I taking you?” The cab driver asks.

Sleuth tells him the address to his apartment, and spends the quiet ride relaxing. Once at his building he exits and pays the driver. He goes up to his apartment, takes off his coat and hat, and lies down on his bed. As he thinks about changing for bed he falls asleep.

Chapter Text

Problem Sleuth wakes up in the morning, an hour or so after dawn. He does a once-over of his clothing situation. He fell asleep in his clothes. Again. He takes them off, showers, and throws on a new set. He eats a quick breakfast and heads out the door. He takes the bus to his office.

As he gets out he looks around. He scans the streets and alleyways and rooftops, and does a double take as he sees a patch of green and blue in his vision. He focuses on a green man in a solid blue top hat standing perfectly still on a rooftop, staring at, as far as Problem Sleuth can tell, his office.

The problem with the Felt is that they’re so damn conspicuous.

Problem Sleuth: Rough up Doze for information.

You climb the top of the fire escape and onto the roof and turn Doze to face you. He’s rigid as a statue.

You slap him a few times, telling him to snap out of it. You slap him a few more times for good measure. And then you slap him a few more times for fun.

==>

It looks like he’s stuck in his time field that slows everything down for him. Or speeds everything else up according to his perspective. Relativistically it’s equivalent.

You could either wait for him to snap out of it so you can actually get some answers from him, like what he’s doing watching your office.

Or you can get the hell out of here because the Felt are tailing you. And wherever there’s one of these miserable green motherfuckers there’s more.

They’re like time manipulating cockroaches. They’re hard to stomp and when you do it doesn’t seem to kill them. Actually, that’s not a very appropriate metaphor at all, since cockroaches are easy to kill.

==>

You search Doze for his radio and break it. This will do honestly nothing to stop the Felt from being able to follow you, but it might give you some time, and when dealing with the Felt every minute counts.

Problem Sleuth: Abscond.

You need to do one more thing before you get the hell out of here.

Persevering Maillady: Deliver mail.

You do not need explicit command to deliver the mail. It something you are always doing and is the one thing you think about at all times.

==>

You are on your way to Problem Sleuth’s office. You know for a fact that Problem Sleuth has used the mail service to deliver himself evidence in an investigation recently. You know this because of your mailsense, which is a skill you have developed over your many years of delivering the mail. You are so attuned to the mail you can even tell what’s inside without opening it up.

Because to do that would be unethical!

It does not dawn on you that discovering the contents of the mail is the unethical action, regardless of how this is accomplished.

==>

Oh goodness somebody has pulled you into an alley you swing your letter opener in a wild fashion back and forth you won’t let them take the mail away because that’s the only thing they could possibly want from a woman in a cute uniform like yourself.

“Relax! Relax! It’s me.” Problem Sleuth says as he backs away from the Postmaster Sword.

Persevering Maillady puts the letter opener back in her bag. “What’s this all about?” She says in between huffs.

Sleuth straightens up a bit and gives himself a moment. “I need you to take the day off.”

“WHAT?” Maillady shouts so loud the whole block can hear. “Absolutely not! I need to deliver the mail.” She says as she adjusts her mailbag. “It is my solemn duty.”

“Listen,” Sleuth says approaching Maillady. “The Midnight Crew are looking into my cases and the Felt are tailing me, and it’s only a matter of time before they start fighting.” He says just above a whisper. “I’ve gotta get everybody I know to clear away from me for the near future, or else they’re gonna get dragged into this.”

“But what about the evidence you mailed yourself?” She says as she fishes in her mailbag.

“I can’t take it right now. I don’t want either gang to shake me down and get ahead of me in my investigation.” Problem Sleuth says. “Deliver it to my apartment.”

Maillady’s eyes flick away from Sleuth. “And where would that be?” Maillady asks innocently.

“Oh, don’t play coy. I know you know where it is. Just find a discreet spot to put it in. The vent in my bedroom will work fine.”

Maillady doesn’t say anything for a few seconds. “I can’t take the day off from mail. It’s just something I can’t do.”

Problem Sleuth groans. “Fine. Just go along your route for the day. If anybody wants to follow you they should get bored after a while, and if anybody wants to look through your mail swing your letter opener at them.” Sleuth says. “Deliver the evidence to my apartment once you’re finished for the day and then don’t come by my office for a few days.”

Problem Sleuth starts walking away. “But what are you gonna do?” Persevering Maillady asks.

“I’ve got a lead I need to follow up on.” Sleuth says. “And I’ve gotta do something about the Felt and the Midnight Crew.”

“What?”

Problem Sleuth looks inwardly. “I’m still thinking about that one.” He says. He walks away.

Persevering Maillady: Do what Problem Sleuth says.

It doesn’t feel right to just abandon him like this (you’re not abandoning him, he asked you to do this), but if he says things are getting pretty dangerous you should respect his wishes if he doesn’t want you to get involved.

You go about your business for the rest of the day feeling a little down.

Problem Sleuth’s only leads are the one in the mail and the one in the office downtown. There’s nothing he can do about the one in the mail right now. Problem Sleuth decides to see Wallstreet Keynoter. At the very least, if Problem Sleuth takes his trouble to them they can more than handle themselves. Wallstreet Keynoter’s got an eternity of physical combat experience, and Sleuth knows what Litigious Lawyer can do.

Sleuth hails a taxi. He gets inside and tells the cab driver to take him downtown. “If you see any black cars that look like they’re cloaked in shadow, let me know.” Sleuth tells the driver.

“What, you on the run from the Midnight Crew?” The driver asks.

“I don’t run from nobody.”

“Yeah, sure. And that’s why you want me to be your lookout.” The driver shakes his head and rolls his eyes.

“And be a gent and keep an eye out for any vomit green cars while you’re at it.”

“If I see any mobsters I’m getting the hell out of this cab and leaving you in here.”

What ever happened to helping out a stranger in need? Nothing, seems like, since nobody bothered doing it in the first place.

Problem Sleuth spends the ride keeping watch in all directions. Sleuth figures he only has so much time before the Felt catch his scent. At that point, if they want to get him, they can. It’s possible to get the best of them, but it requires more thought than Problem Sleuth wants to spend right now. Better to save it for when he needs it.

The Midnight Crew don’t have those advantages. It’s why they’re better mobsters. They can be incredibly clever, and they’ve bribed half the city. All it takes is one goon from the expansive network of informants to spot Problem Sleuth. Then the Midnight Crew come rolling in. If the Midnight Crew wants to get Problem Sleuth, they can, and he figures they’re gonna want to.

The cab rolls just into downtown when a police car flashes its light. “You’re not on the run from the cops too, are you?” The cab driver asks as he pulls over.

A cop walks up to the driver side window and looks inside. He looks at the cab driver. He looks at Problem Sleuth for a few seconds longer than he needs to. “Sorry for the inconvenience. Please carry on.” The cop walks back to the police car as the cab starts driving again.

“That was weird.” The driver says.

The light at the next stop turns from green to red and the cab stops. A cloaked car rolls across the intersection and comes to a stop, blocking traffic. Three doors open. A tall man, a taller man, and a short man step out. They start walking towards Sleuth’s cab.

The cab driver stays true to his promise to ditch the car if he sees any mobsters. Diamonds Droog pulls a card from his deck and fires his tommy gun into the air.

“PROBLEM SLEUTH” Boxcars yells. “WE WANNA TALK WITH YA, YA PIPSQUEAK”

“NOBODY HAS TO GET HURT!” Clubs Deuce yells. “JUST COME OUT OF THE CAB AND LET’S TALK.”

Problem Sleuth: Deal with the Midnight Crew.

And how the hell are you gonna do that?

At best, you can deal with one, maybe two, before their specializations really start adding up. You might have better luck trying to capture one instead.

But not Clubs Deuce. He’d be easiest, but he can’t remember what he ate for breakfast. Not that you can either right now, but you’re preoccupied.

People exit their cars and cars start pulling away from the gridlock in response to Droog’s fire and the rest of the Midnight Crew.

Problem Sleuth throws himself into the front seat. The driver left his keys in his car. He shifts the car into drive.

Problem Sleuth: Stare down Hearts Boxcars.

You are now Diamonds Droog.

Is Problem Sleuth going to do what you think he’s going to do?

Because it looks like he’s about to plow into Hearts Boxcars with the taxi.

And that’s exactly what happens. It’s gratifying to know that nearly all of your predictions come true.

Problem Sleuth opens the door and takes cover behind it. He pulls out his key ring. Sleuth pops up and fires a wild spray of fire. Diamonds Droog crouches behind a car.

Problem Sleuth sprints the distance between him and Diamonds Droog. As Droog pops up to fill Sleuth full of lead Problem Sleuth delivers a solid blow to Droog’s head with the butt of his key ring, knocking off Droog’s hat and knocking him to the ground.

“My fucking suit.” Droog swears.

Problem Sleuth grabs Droog by the collar and starts dragging him towards the abandoned taxi. He sprays in the direction of Hearts Boxcars.

Hearts Boxcars: Teach this runt a lesson in manners.

You are now Clubs Deuce.

You grip your Crook of Felony with two hands, feeling its grooves. You know this weapon well. It has served you well as you do stuff. You feel like you and it have a long history together. You can’t remember what it is.

But you know Problem Sleuth is dragging Diamonds Droog towards a car, and that can’t be good, so you get behind him and hit him in the knee as hard as you can.

Problem Sleuth falls on his back and throws up his arms. He bruises his forearms blocking Clubs Deuce’s blows. He turns himself on his stomach and gets on his knees. With his knee still stinging from the blow, he only manages a half-lunge towards Clubs Deuce, but it’s enough to tackle the small fellow. Sleuth gives the short guy a right hook and then a left hook, and then he hobbles himself up.

Droog is recovering about now. Sleuth fires some more spray at Boxcars to keep him away. Sleuth jams a hand into Droog’s coat and throws his deck of cards aside, and starts dragging him by the collar again.

Hearts Boxcars: Help out your incompetent crew members.

Problem Sleuth only notices Spades Slick when he gets tackled by him. He lands on his back, and then there’s a knee in his chest, and then there’s a knife to his throat, and then there’s a man with sharp teeth barely holding himself back. Problem Sleuth is stunned, the wind’s been knocked out of him, and all of his unlocking instruments are stuck in his pockets. He’s been beat.

“How ya,” Problem Sleuth gasps out, “doing, Slick?” Sleuth gives a haggard grin.

Slick is fuming. “i thought you fuckin wanted to talk” Slick growls.

The Crew recover and stand around Problem Sleuth. Droog is brushing off his hat as he walks to the group. He kicks Sleuth in his side. Hard. “You got my suit dirty.” Droog explains.

Deuce fishes through all of Sleuth’s pockets and takes the items to the car. Slick lets up and Boxcars grabs Problem Sleuth by the collar.

They throw him in the backseat. Boxcars squeezes him from the right, Droog from the left, Slick is sitting across from him, and Clubs Deuce is in the driver seat.

“you know what i said to myself today” Slick asks as the car starts moving.

“What?” Sleuth humors as he catches his breath.

“that you were right” Slick says. “it was about time we had a decent chat. just you and me and the rest of the crew”

Chapter Text

“Alright. You wanna talk? What about?” Sleuth asks. “Still not over Snowman yet?”

Droog and Boxcars face Problem Sleuth, looks of surprise on their faces. The car veers suddenly before Deuce catches the wheel. Slick’s eyes narrow to slits. This is what tends to happen when you ask about the only forbidden topic to the Midnight Crew.

“boxcars,” Slick growls commandingly.

Boxcars smashes his elbow into Problem Sleuth’s head. Sleuth’s vision returns to normal in a few seconds and he pushes himself off of Droog’s shoulder.

“you get all your smart ass out of your system yet” Slick asks. “cause im fine letting boxcars beat the shit out of you. maybe ill let deuce get a turn too to keep him happy”

“BUT I LIKE PROBLEM SLEUTH.” Clubs Deuce says.

“dammit deuce shut up im trying to intimidate sleuth here”

Diamonds Droog cradles his head in his hand and groans.

“what are you groaning at” Slick asks Droog, daring him to answer. “sleuth” Slick says, trying to start over.

“Yeah?”

“were friends right” Slick asks. “boxcars you think were friends with sleuth right”

Boxcars nods.

“deuce”

“YEP!”

“droog”

Diamonds Droog says nothing.

“three out of four of the crew think youre a friend”

Sleuth raises a brow.

“you havent been very friendly recently” Slick says. “why seems like everytime we see you youre trying to shoot us”

“Slick,” Sleuth says. “I never shoot to kill.”

“Bullshit.” Droog says annoyed.

“friends dont hurt each other sleuth. friends dont keep secrets from each other” Slick says. “seems like youve been doing both lately. what kind of friend have you been sleuth”

“What’s your point, Slick?” Sleuth asks.

“my point is” Slick pauses. “i think its time you start spilling your guts in a metaphorical sense before you start spilling your guts in a literal sense” Slick twirls a switchblade around in his fingers before it disappears into his deck. “the apartment. whatd you find there”

Sleuth glances to Droog and Boxcars beside him. The car rocks lightly back and forth. “Nothing. You guys got there not much longer after I did.

Slick looks at Droog. Droog shakes his head. “droog thinks you had time enough to search the place and you cant argue with his eye for detail” Slick says. “you had to have found something”

Sleuth shakes his head.

“The missing client list.” Droog interrupts. “You didn’t think I wouldn’t notice there wasn’t any recent information in his client notebooks?” Droog says increasingly aggravated.

“I NEVER THOUGHT ID HAVE TO TELL YA THIS DROOG” Boxcars says. “BUT CALM DOWN”

Droog glares past Problem Sleuth at Boxcars. “I am calm.” Droog says in a perfectly chilling tone.

Slick looks at Sleuth. “well” He says. “where is it”

“What do you care about the client list?” Sleuth asks. “Aren’t you more interested in what the courier was carrying?”

“were very interested in what the courier was carrying” Slick says.

“So you know what it was, then?”

Slick doesn’t respond.

“Oh.” Sleuth says. “You guys don’t know what it is.” Sleuth smiles knowingly. Bluffingly.

Slick swears inaudibly.

“To answer your question,” Sleuth says. “Yeah, I took the client list. But I haven’t looked at it myself. It doesn’t matter since I know what the courier was carrying.” Sleuth says. “It’s a shame you guys don’t.”

Slick rubs his temple. “boxcars” Slick says.

Problem Sleuth gets a fist to the side. He grips his side in agony.

“you feel like telling us what he was carrying yet”

Sleuth looks upward in thought. He shakes his head.

“droog” Slick says. “boxcars”

Sleuth wonders how Droog and Boxcars are beating him with the Ultraviolence Cuestick and TV Antenna, respectively, given the narrow confines of the car. They stop after thirty seconds.

“what about now”

“Slick,” Sleuth rubs his bloody mouth. “How many times do we gotta go through this? You know I ain’t gonna crack.”

“maybe this timell be different” Slick grins. “im always willing to try”

Boxcars and Droog resume their beating.

Spades Slick: Keep a lookout.

You are now Clubs Deuce.

You are driving the Midnight Cruiser, which you think is a really clever name for the car your gang drives. You don’t remember who came up with the name. When you asked Droog, he said he didn’t. When you asked Slick, he said he didn’t. When you asked Boxcars, he said he didn’t. So it’s a complete mystery where the name came from!

Hearts Boxcars and Diamonds Droog are beating up on poor Problem Sleuth in the back there. You don’t really blame them. Problem Sleuth has some information, and they really want to know what it is. It’s a shame he just doesn’t give it up willingly, because he’s such a nice guy and you don’t like it when nice guys like him get beat up.

Clubs Deuce: Look in the rearview mirror.

Boxcars and Droog sure look mad! Droog doesn’t really get much into beating people up, but it looks like he’s really taking this seriously. One of his suits must’ve gotten dirty. You wonder when that happened.

Clubs Deuce: Look again!

Oh goodness it’s the Felt!

They must have used the giant blind spot behind Boxcars’ head to drive behind you! They’re geniuses!

“EVERYBODY! DUCK!” Deuce shouts.

“whats the problem“

“THERE’S A CAR FULL OF STRIPED COLORED HATS BEHIND US SO JUST DUCK!”

Striped hats?

The windows explode in shattered glass as bullets tear through the car. Sleuth doesn’t wait for Droog and Boxcars to duck beside him. There’s a break in the fire and Sleuth looks outside. Matchstick, Sawbuck, and Quarters are comically stuffed inside a sedan carrying all sorts of firepower as Clover drives. No wonder why traffic’s practically parting for them.

“droog” Slick shouts.

“Already on it.” Droog says as he leans out the window with an assault rifle. He fires a few bursts at the Felt before he ducks down. Another round of fire dents the side and trunk of the car.

“deuce get us the hell out of here”

Deuce’s tongue is licking his lips in determination. He fishes around in his coat for a second or two, and passes a card to Slick. “FOR BOXCARS.”

“what the hell is this” Slick says holding the porno mag.

“OOPS! I MEANT THIS.” Deuce says, handing Slick another card over his shoulder.

Boxcars grabs the stick of dynamite from Slick and sticks it out of the window, using the asphalt to light the fuse. He leans out, causing the car to lean heavily to one side. He gives the stick a good toss at the Felt car. It embeds itself into the body of the car. Boxcars quickly ducks back inside as bullets pass over the roof of the car.

Droog fires at the Felt to keep their heads inside the car as they make attempts to brush the stick away with their guns. Just before the dynamite explodes it falls out, blowing a pothole into the street behind them.

Droog glowers incredulously at the result. “AH COME ON” Boxcars shouts in frustration.

Sleuth jumps forward onto the seat across from him. “hey what are you doing” Slick asks as he gets pushed aside. Sleuth searches through his belongings in the front seat quickly, when he springs back in between Boxcars and Droog.

He hands Boxcars his hairpin. Boxcars puzzles over it for a second before leaning out the window.

Boxcars mounts the gas-powered rotary machine gun onto the roof of the car, causing the car to sag. He turns it to the sickly green vehicle full of green assholes. The barrel spools up and Boxcars covers the Felt in several thousand rounds per minute for several seconds.

The Felt’s vehicle is disabled and it skids to a stop, having lost both tires on one side. As the Midnight Crew put distance between them and the Felt Sleuth looks behind them. The four Felt exit uninjured. “YOU CHEATING BASTARDS” Boxcars bellows as he shakes his fist.

Slick glares at Problem Sleuth. “you wanna explain to me what just happened”

“What makes you think I had anything to do with this?” Sleuth asks.

“so we pick you up and then next thing we know theres a carload of gun-toting green jackasses trying to shoot us up”

Sleuth gives an uneasy grin. “That’s an interesting coincidence.” Sleuth says. “For all I know they could’ve been gunning after you and I’m just an unlucky passenger.”

“When did they start following you?” Droog asks.

“How do you figure it’s me they’re following?”

Droog stares at him like he’s stupid.

“Right. You’re Diamonds Droog.” Sleuth says matter-of-factly. “I caught Doze outside of my office today. I don’t know if they’ve been tailing me longer.”

“SLICK,” Deuce speaks up.

“what”

“THE CAR’S BREAKING DOWN.”

Slick grunts in acknowledgment. The car sputters and smokes its way into a nearby alley where Clubs Deuce kills the engine. The Crew pile out, pulling Problem Sleuth with them. They throw him against the wall, guns and poleaxes pointed at him.

Slick walks around from behind the car and walks to Droog’s side. “what do you think” He asks.

“I think we should shoot him.” Droog says, pistol pointed at Sleuth’s heart.

“WILL YA CALM DOWN ABOUT THE SUIT ALREADY” Boxcars says.

“focus for a second droog” Slick says.

Droog’s brow twitches. He turns to Slick. “Alright. I’ll focus. Because that’s not something I’m already doing all the time.” Droog says with a glare. “Problem Sleuth is probably bluffing about knowing what the courier was carrying.”

“probably” Slick asks. “i dont think ive ever heard you use that word before”

“Or maybe he isn't bluffing. I can’t tell." Droog says. "Whatever the case, it doesn’t matter what Sleuth knows because the Felt know more. That,” Droog says pointing towards the road. “Is the boldest the Felt have ever acted. You don’t find that the least bit odd, Slick? It’s like the rest of you expect me to do all the thinking around here.”

“BUT YOU’RE SO GOOD AT IT.”

Droog puts a cigarette in his mouth. “I appreciate the thought, Deuce. But I’m not finished ranting yet. And explaining the situation to the rest of you.” Droog turns to Problem Sleuth. “This murder. Is it the only thing you’re working on?”

“Well,” Problem Sleuth gives him a bit of time to stall. “I’m helping some dame track down her missing jewelry.”

“Like the Felt'll try and kill us for that.” Droog dismisses. He turns back to Slick. “Slick, we need to start working against the Felt. Not tagging along on Problem Sleuth’s cases.” Droog says. “Whatever that courier was carrying the Felt are more than willing to kill anyone looking for it no matter where they are on the trail. I think it’s time we start looking into them instead of this bastard.”

Slick nods.

“WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT SLEUTH” Boxcars asks.

“I still say we should shoot him.” Droog says. “He got my suit dirty.”

“enough about your stupid suit” Slick says. “deuce” Slick calls.

“YEAH!” He answers.

“drub sleuths shins” Slick says. “you saved our asses just now so thats why youre getting the gentle treatment” He says to Sleuth.

Sleuth looks down at Clubs Deuce gripping his Crook of Felony. Moments later Sleuth is on his back gripping his bruised shins. “Thanks, Slick. I appreciate it.” He groans.

“you better” Slick says. “it aint often im in a generous mood”

“SORRY ABOUT THAT, SLEUTH.” Deuce apologizes.

Slick looks around. “we done here” Slick asks Droog. “cause we need to split soon”

“Yeah, there ain’t anything else Sleuth can tell us.”

Slick stands over Sleuth. “just cause im in a friendly mood now doesnt mean i will be soon” Slick says. “dont look into the courier case anymore. if we catch you looking into it” Slick trails off. “well lets just say youll probably die gruesomely somehow”

“I catch your drift, Slick.” Sleuth says.

The Midnight Crew walk away, down the alley and into the shadows. Sleuth gingerly picks himself up off the ground. He opens the front passenger door and takes his belongings. His key. His keyring. His hairpin. Various scraps of paper. Problem Sleuth flops himself down onto the seat, wondering if how he dealt with the Midnight Crew was actually a success.

Problem Sleuth: Wonder whether you got the upper hand in that exchange.

You told enough truth that the Midnight Crew may have taken you at your word. Not the whole truth, though. You’re glad Diamonds Droog didn’t press you over the missing jewelry. You don’t know if you would’ve been able to keep from him that you were looking for the Sapphire of Alternia. Obviously they don't know it's missing, a fact you're glad about it.

Even though you nearly died, the timely arrival of the Felt onto the scene seems to have convinced the Midnight Crew that they have bigger fish to fry. Unfortunately you have the exact same problem as them now.

Problem Sleuth: Wonder about the Felt.

They certainly came from nowhere. And they came out swinging. Maybe they killed that courier. It would certainly explain why they’re interested in keeping you and the Midnight Crew away from whatever he was carrying. You still haven’t figured out what it was.

With the way this day is going you’re not sure if you’re going to live to find out.

In any case, you’re too hardboiled to let a thing like nearly dying and getting your ass handed to you by the Midnight Crew stop you from working on your cases. You need to get to Wallstreet Keynoter.

Sleuth limps out of the alley, and starts walking his injuries off. Passersby look at him. He checks his suit. Damn, there’s blood on it. He tries to wipe it off. A guy’s gotta look presentable for his mobster suitors.

Sleuth wonders exactly where he is. He looks into the sky, and heads in the direction of Keynote Bank.

Chapter Text

Problem Sleuth: Get to Keynote Bank unharassed.

Your attempt is an overwhelming failure.

Problem Sleuth looks over his shoulder frequently as he walks towards Keynote Bank. The Midnight Crew are off his back, temporarily, but the Felt are still around. And they’re going to be crawling like green time manipulating cockroaches over the Midnight Cruiser’s wreck in no time.

When it comes to surveillance, the Felt have options. Itchy runs around so fast nobody can see him. Doze can look at a single location for days. Trace can look into where somebody’s been and Fin can look into where somebody’s going. Clover’s so damn lucky he just knows things. And then Die can jump to timelines where people are dead to find out if the Felt there learned anything from them. Hell, if Snowman feels up to it, she can teleport to wherever she feels like.

And that’s not to say they’re slouches at typical surveillance. The muscle are all conspicuous in a crowd but they know how to follow somebody if it’s not an issue that the target knows they’re being tailed. And they know how to do stakeouts, if letting everybody know a bunch of green hulking brutes are gazing at them through binoculars isn’t an issue. They know their stuff. Except for Eggs and Biscuits. They don’t know how to do anything, but they’re dangerous for other reasons.

Crowbar’s the most traditional gangster of the bunch. It’s why he’s in charge. He may not be as smart as Diamonds Droog or as unpredictable as Spades Slick, but he knows how to use the Felt to their fullest effect. The shoot out Problem Sleuth just escaped was a perfect example. That car was protected by Clover’s luck, the lucky bastard.

If the Felt are focusing all their surveillance efforts on Problem Sleuth, there’s not much they won’t find out, and it’s not likely Sleuth is going to catch them while they’re doing it. Either he gets lucky or they screw up.

A car pulls up alongside Problem Sleuth, keeping pace with his walking. Sleuth can instantly tell this is a plainclothes cop car. The window rolls down to reveal Anarchy Repressor in the passenger seat. “Sleuth!” He shouts. “You alright?”

“I’m terrific!” Sleuth says, holding his arms out to show the beating he took. “The Midnight Crew went easy on me.”

“So the shoot out I’m out here looking at...” Repressor starts.

“The Felt and Midnight Crew. I was inside the black car.”

“Good to see you alive.” Repressor says with a smile on his face. “You need some police protection?”

Sleuth laughs. “Are you crazy? I’d be safer with the Midnight Crew.”

Repressor smiles. “You find any leads into the murder?”

“Yeah.” Sleuth says. “I think the Felt did it, with how they’re trying to kill me and the Midnight Crew.”

“That’s fantastic news! I’m sure my dirty man will start working his ass off now.” Repressor says with a laugh.

“Have you seen any of the green bastards running around?” Problem Sleuth asks. “I could really use a heads up if you have.”

“Yeah, actually, I have.” Repressor says. “I saw a solid red hat a couple blocks behind you headed in the same direction you are.”

“Thanks, Repressor.” Sleuth says, giving a tip of his hat.

“No problem, Sleuth, but this counts as a favor.” Repressor gris. “Stay safe, Sleuth.” He says as the car drives off.

Bastard.

At least it’s Trace following him, and not any of the other Felt. He’s probably trying to catch up to Sleuth so that Fin can start working on Sleuth’s future. It’s a tricky hand off when the target’s moving like Sleuth is. Unless Trace is digging into a person’s past, he’s little more than a glorified tail. He’s impossible to shake, but he has his own vulnerabilities.

Problem Sleuth: Let Trace catch up to you.

You turn a street corner, and then proceed through nearby alleyways to a position behind trash cans and dumpsters just off the street you walked down.

You wait for Trace.

==>

There he is. He looks insufferably smug with that stupid popped collar he’s showing off to everybody. What does he think he is? A peacock? Get over yourself, being able to look into people’s past isn’t even really all that interesting a way to manipulate time.

Problem Sleuth: Get the drop on Trace.

You move from behind the trashcans and dumpsters as soon as Trace passes. You poke him in the back with your key and tell him that if he doesn’t want his chest unlocked and all its vital treasures contained within spread out all over the ground he’ll walk into the alley he just passed and have a nice little chat with you.

“Aw, dammit.” Trace swears as he walks into the alley. He turns around to face Sleuth.

“Ain’t it a shame you following past trails unthinkingly bites you in the ass?” Sleuth says. “In case more of you show up, I’ll be quick.”

Trace rolls his eyes.

“What are you following me for?”

“Hell if I know.” Trace says.

Sleuth gives Trace a left hook. “Next it’ll be from this.” Sleuth says, holding up the gun in his hand. “Why are you following me?”

“Because Crowbar told me to.”

“This ain’t improving my mood.”

“What? It’s the truth.” Trace shrugs. “I don’t know all the details. You gonna shoot me because I don’t know everything you want to know? The Felt are a gang, not a hivemind.”

Sleuth fires his key into Trace’s gut. He staggers back a bit. “You punk!” Trace says. “You know this isn’t going to kill me.”

“And that’s the best part about the Felt. And the worst part. You’re hard to kill.” Sleuth says. “It gives me a lot of room in situations like this though. Since you’re apparently the least curious gangster I’ve ever met, tell me what Crowbar told you to follow me for.”

Trace grips his gut wound. “He didn’t say all that much. I was supposed to follow you from your office as soon as Doze saw anything, but that call never came in. Then I got told to go follow the Midnight Crew around, but what do you know, I find your past trail here. So then I follow you so that I can pass you off to Fin so he can find out where you’re going and so that we can ambush you. And then get some answers.” Trace starts laughing. “You don’t have much time. Fin is on his way.”

Sleuth grimaces. “When did the Felt start tailing me?” Sleuth says. “Remember, I got five more bullets in this thing.”

Trace’s eyes roll back into his head. Was it from pain or was he being uncooperative? “Yesterday. We heard you and the Midnight Crew had a little brush up.”

“How’d you hear that?”

“Are you kidding? When you’re anywhere near each other bullets start flying around everywhere. It’s like a law of the universe or something.” Trace says. “So I looked a little bit into your past while Itchy followed you around. Funny what I saw. Confirmed what we were already thinking at the time.”

Sleuth glares and refocuses his gun on Trace. “And what’s that?”

“That you’re looking for Wealthy Quantifier’s missing necklace.” Trace says. “You know. The valuable one.”

Trace: Get rescued.

You can already feel Stitch working his magic on your effigy. But that doesn’t help with the guy in front of you.

Sleuth picked the wrong alley to jump you. You can see Fin’s past trail around here. Fin ten minutes ago walks up to Sleuth and gives him a hard punch across his jaw.

Problem Sleuth: React to invisible assailant.

He’s not invisible! He’s in the past.

You fire your gun randomly in the direction you got punched from. As far as you can tell, you don’t hit anything.

You get cold clocked from the past again. You throw a wild punch, but the punches just keep coming.

Then Trace joins in. Didn’t you just shoot him? Awfully spry for an injured fellow.

==>

You have been subdued by the combined power of FELT TECH LV. 32: PAST & FUTURE DOUBLE TEAM STRIKE: PRESENTPAST PUNCHING POST.

Fin joins Trace from the street. Sleuth is sitting against the wall of a building, his keysets thrown aside. “Hey, Trace.” Fin says with a knowing smile.

“Hey, Fin.” Trace says with a knowing smile.

These two are insufferable when they’re together.

Fin faces Sleuth. “Since you’ve got a strict schedule you need to make,” He says. “We’ll be quick.”

“Where is it?” Trace asks.

Sleuth cocks a brow. “Where’s what?”

“What we were just talking about, smart guy.” Trace says. “Wealthy Quantifier’s necklace.”

“In my office safe.” Sleuth lies.

Fin and Trace look at each other for a second. “We’ve been there a couple of times already.” Fin says. “You don’t have an office safe.”

“Then where do I store all the necklaces I pocket from rich dames?” Sleuth says, dripping with sarcasm.

“Enough of this.” Trace says. He gives Sleuth several punches in the gut. “I saw you with Wealthy Quantifier yesterday. And then you go look through her house in the afternoon.”

“So where is it?” Fin asks.

“Where’s what?” Sleuth asks again, annoyed.

“Wealthy Quantifier’s necklace, dammit!” Trace shouts. “The valuable one.”

“She’s got a lot of valuable necklaces.” Sleuth says. “Which one are you talking about?”

Fin punches Sleuth in the jaw. “The Sapphire of Alternia.” He says in a hushed tone.

Sleuth picks up his head and stares at these green clowns with colored hats. At least he got them to say it. “Oh, that one.” Sleuth says. “Around Wealthy Quantifier’s neck.”

Fin looks at Trace. Trace shakes his head. “You’re lying.” Fin says.

“The hell I am.” Sleuth says. “Are you sure you didn’t see it around her neck?”

“She wasn’t wearing it.” Trace says.

“I bet her past trail was pretty thin at that point. Can’t really make out any details after more than an hour, right? Bet you didn’t know it was Wealthy Quantifier until I made my way to her house.” Sleuth says. “I was there. And I saw that giant blue sapphire on her neck. And you mean to call me a liar?” Sleuth spits at them. “The Midnight Crew don’t disrespect me like that. Why can’t there be more of them instead of a bunch of sweaty greenbacks who are full of themselves.”

Trace and Fin look at each other. “Shit.” Fin swears quietly. “Are you sure you didn’t see it?” He asks Trace.

“Yes.” Trace responds without confidence. “I don’t know anymore, I wasn’t paying all that much attention. You know?”

“Yeah, I know. It’s alright, we’ll work through this.” Fin says quietly.

“You done patting yourselves on the back for starting a gang war over something you weren’t even sure about?” Sleuth says, grin on his face.

“Why did you go to Wealthy Quantifier’s house if she was wearing the necklace? The valuable one.” Trace asks.

“Well, it’s obviously because I wasn’t looking for something else, was it?” Sleuth says sarcastically. “She asked me to track down some of her books.”

“Shit.” Fin swears quietly again. “You’re joking.” He says aloud.

“Why? You seen them? I could use the help tracking them down.” Sleuth says. “That would be a hell of a coincidence. You’re looking for the Sapphire of Alternia, you think I’m looking for the Sapphire of Alternia. You came across a bunch of ancient books, I’m actually looking for a bunch of ancient books. Things work out pretty great in this town sometimes.”

“We haven’t seen your goddamn books.” Trace says.

Fin and Trace look around like the stuff has just hit the fan. For all they know, it has.

“What’s your problem with the Midnight Crew?” Sleuth asks.

“Hey, we’re asking the questions around here.” Trace says.

“I thought we were taking turns.” Sleuth says with a smirk. “I asked you a couple of questions, you beat me up and asked a few of yours.”

Fin frowns. “We thought they were looking for Wealthy Quantifier’s necklace.” Fin admits.

“What about that courier?” Sleuth asks.

“What about him? The Midnight Crew did him in, right?” Trace asks.

“Yeah, that’s right.” Sleuth lies.

Fin and Trace face each other. “What do we do about him?” Trace asks.

“Leave him for now. We have to tell Crowbar about this.” Fin says. “Hopefully the Midnight Crew will be in a talking mood.”

Trace shakes his head. “I doubt it.”

“Did you know I was in that car with the Midnight Crew?” Sleuth asks, changing the subject.

“Shit, you were? That wasn’t supposed to happen.” Trace asks. “What’s going on?” Trace asks Fin. “Don’t we operate better than this?”

Sleuth smirks. No, not really.

“Snowman is going to have a fit about this, if she isn’t already.” Fin says. “I don’t envy Crowbar right now.”

“Let’s get out of here.” Trace says to Fin. “Goodbye, Problem Sleuth.” Trace says as he walks quickly away to the street.

“Bye.” Fin says as he walks quickly away down the alley.

Problem Sleuth picks himself up. He grabs his set of keys and stuffs them in his pocket.

Problem Sleuth: Feel proud about victory.

You definitely came ahead the victor in that exchange. You got Fin and Trace ready to believe the Felt started a gang war with the Midnight Crew over a mistake.

A mistake that actually wasn’t a mistake at all. So who knows how long that’s going to last. You thank Wealthy Quantifier for making you jump through all those hoops. It was frustrating at the time but it certainly helped bluff your way out of this mess.

Problem Sleuth: Ponder other things.

You’re a lot further away from solving that murder than you thought were when you started shaking down Trace. Apparently they didn’t do it. The Midnight Crew didn’t do it. So who did?

With the Mignight Crew and the Felt occupied with each other, you’ve got some breathing room to make it to Wallstreet Keynoter now. Better make the best of it.

Problem Sleuth walks out onto the street. He stretches his bruised torso and limbs and looks toward the sky from under his hat. He continues towards Keynote Bank.

Chapter Text

Problem Sleuth spends the walk to Keynote Bank catching odd looks from pedestrians. He looks them back straight in the eye. Once he meets their gaze they turn their eyes away, and then give him a wide berth. This isn’t the first time he’s walked around the city looking like hell. What’s everybody so surprised about? Not that he expects anybody to know who he is.

He arrives at Keynote Bank, well before closing time. He stares up the tower. Sunshine bounces off its glass windows into his eyes. He heads inside. “Hello.” Problem Sleuth greets a receptionist.

The receptionist looks up. Her eyes widen before the script she performs several times a day kicks in. “Uhhh,” She starts. “Welcome to Keynote Bank’s corporate offices. How can I help you?”

“I’m here to see Litigious Lawyer. He’s expecting me.” Sleuth says. He leans an elbow on the counter. “And I’ve had a bad day, so could you stop looking at me like I’ve got the plague?”

“Of course, sorry.” She says as she starts dialing the phone. “And your name is?” She asks.

“Problem Sleuth.”

The receptionist looks mildly surprised as she holds the receiver to her ear. “The Problem Sleuth?” She asks. Sleuth nods. “Guess that explains the black eyes.” She says as she waits for an answer. Sleuth can only grin. It’s not often his reputation precedes him. At least among people who aren’t trying to kill him half the time.

The receptionist talks on the phone for a little bit. Yes, sir. He’s here to see you, sir. Very well, sir. She hangs up and turns to Sleuth. “Elevator’s right there.” She points with her thumb. “Top floor.”

“Thanks.” Problem Sleuth says as he starts walking.

“Maybe when you clean up a bit, you’ll come back.” The receptionist says.

“But I’ll need a reason to do that.” Problem Sleuth says with a smirk as he walks to the elevator. “You got one?”

“Oh,” The receptionist reciprocates the smile. “A few.”

Problem Sleuth pushes the button for the elevator. Seconds later the doors slide open, revealing the operator. Sleuth steps inside. “Which floor?” The operator asks.
Sleuth waits a moment. “The very top.” He says, hoping to impress the operator.

The operator instead looks him over as the door closes and the elevator starts ascending. Sleuth figures he’s earned the man’s silent scorn.

After a minute or so spent in awkward silence, the elevator dings and the doors open. Sleuth steps outside the elevator and ignores Wallstreet Keynoter’s secretary.

Problem Sleuth: Take in the view.

You put your face to a window, smudging it in the process. But you don’t care.

You can see everything from up here. The whole city. Every single inch. And it goes on for miles. Residential blocks, apartments, industrial districts. Office buildings, movie theaters. Race tracks, casinos. It’s breathtaking.

And then beyond it. Wasteland. Mountains devoid of vegetation. The occasional ruin. It’s humbling. The rest of the planet is like that. Completely dead, and right here is the only spark of life.

==>

You push yourself off from the window, simultaneously amazed and humbled from the view.

“Problem Sleuth?” The secretary asks for probably the third or fourth time.

“Yeah, sorry.” Sleuth apologizes, still not taking his eyes off the view. “I hadn’t seen all of the city before. Not at once anyway. I mean, I’ve seen most of it from ground level. But it’s different up here.”

The secretary says nothing.

“You were saying?” Sleuth asks.

“Litigious Lawyer is this way, if you’ll follow me.”

Problem Sleuth follows the secretary around an empty corridor. The building narrows at the top, letting the corridor from the elevator circle around towards Wallstreet Keynoter’s office, giving an almost complete view of the whole city from up here. Anybody who comes up here would be awed, giving Wallstreet Keynoter an edge in any negotiations. The vistas aren’t just for disarming anyone who comes up here; Keynoter probably also uses them while pacing around in thought.

After a brief walk the secretary sits down at her desk and points toward a door. “They’re expecting you. Just go on in.” She says. Problem Sleuth opens the door and walks in.

It’s quite the office. It reminds Sleuth a lot of Wealthy Quantifier’s home. Dark wood, or dark wood paneling, covers the walls. Three windows are behind Wallstreet Keynoter’s desk. Potted plants in the corners flank the windows. The desk itself is made from ornately carved wood.

“Problem Sleuth!” Wallstreet Keynoter shouts jovially. The mountain of a man is sitting in his chair. Litigious Lawyer is leaning on the desk with one hip. They were evidently discussing something, but Sleuth didn’t catch any of it. “Laywer didn’t tell me it’d be you!” Keynoter gets out of his chair and pulls Sleuth into an affectionate hug. Sleuth’s feet dangle off the ground for a few seconds. “How are you, Sleuth? How are you?”

“Sleuth,” Litigious Lawyer says, standing up from the desk. “You look like hell! What’ve you been getting into?”

Sleuth finally gets let go from the hug and looks at the two smiling men. “Oh, you know. I’ve got a few old friends who wanted to catch up.” He says with a smile.

Litigious Lawyer’s face turns sullen for a moment. “You don’t mean that shootout in the middle of downtown.”

Problem Sleuth shrugs. “I’m a popular guy today. Who am I to turn away attention like that?”

Keynoter moves back behind his desk and sits back in his chair. “You know, I could give you a job. The moment you want it you can have it. It’ll be a break from all the hardboiled danger you’re getting yourself into.”

Sleuth chuckles. “I’ll have to pass. If I’ve done it for this long and I ain’t dead yet I figure I’ll keep on living.”

“Very well, Problem Sleuth.” Keynoter says. “Now, what did you want to see me about?” He asks.

Sleuth looks at Litigious Lawyer. “It’s private.”

Litigious Lawyer takes the cue and steps outside, closing the door behind him. Keynoter motions to Sleuth to take a seat. Sleuth accepts. “I need to ask you several questions. About your wife.”

Wallstreet Keynoter’s eyes widen and he frowns for a moment before he relaxes and places his hands on his desk. “Is she alright?”

“I don’t know.” Problem Sleuth pulls a scrap of paper out of his trench coat and slides it across the desk to Keynoter. “She came by my office yesterday morning and hired me for a job. She said to get in contact with her with that number. I’ve tried. She hasn’t answered.”

“That’s strange.” Keynoter says, picking up the phone and dialing the number, sliding the paper back after he finishes dialing. “I’ve talked to her since yesterday.”

“Did she call you?” Sleuth asks, pocketing the number.

“Yes,” Keynoter says as his face puzzles for a moment. After several seconds Keynoter hangs up the receiver. He holds his hands together in worry for a moment. “What did she hire you for?”

“You’re aware her house was robbed, correct?”

“Our house, you mean.” Keynoter corrects. “Yes, I found out yesterday after my wife called to inform me she had gone out of town for several days. She said she was frightened about the robbery.” Keynoter says. “I haven’t had a chance yet to inspect what’s missing for myself.”

“When did she call?” Sleuth asks.

“Sometime in the afternoon.”

“Is this normal for her?”

“Problem Sleuth,” Keynoter says in a chastising tone. “Wealthy Qauntifier is a very independent woman. Her leaving the city on a whim is perfectly normal. Being unable to contact her is not, however.” Keynoter says with a worried tone.

“She came in my office yesterday morning and asked me to find some missing property of hers.” Sleuth says. “She didn’t tell me what it is, but I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to be looking for the Sapphire of Alternia.”

Keynoter’s eyes flick straight into Sleuth’s. “What makes you say that?” He asks.

“Well, for one, she wasn’t wearing it around her neck and made a point to show me.” Sleuth says. “I figured it out when I visited her house.”

“Our house.” Keynoter corrects again.

“And for two,” Sleuth says, taking in a breath. “The Felt are looking for it too.”

Keynoter leans all the way back in his chair. “Oh dear.” Is all he manages. Moments of uneasy silence pass between them. “Problem Sleuth,” Keynoter finally says. “The Sapphire is just a jewel. It’s one of a kind and it’s valuable, but it ultimately doesn’t mean anything. I want you to look for my wife and make sure she is safe.”

“Keynoter,” Sleuth says. “I’d be more than happy to, but I don’t know where to look.”

Wallstreet Keynoter sighs. “You’re right, of course. I may be expecting too much out of you for asking that. I can’t expect you to work miracles anymore.” He says with a wistful smile. “If there’s anything you can think of to help find her, I would be ever grateful. I have to know she’s safe.”

“I’m not sure you have to worry about that.” Sleuth says. “It sounds like she’s in hiding. And you know this better than anyone, but Wealthy Quantifier isn’t any ordinary woman.”

“Oh, do I.” Keynoter says. “I still worry though. If the Felt are looking for the Sapphire of Alternia, I’m afraid their search might lead them to her. She is the jewel’s keeper.”

“Which is exactly why I need to get in contact with her.” Sleuth says. “If she’s got reason to be as tightlipped as she was when she came in my office she probably knows a thing or two about where the Sapphire is.”

“That’s reasonable, but I don’t know anymore how to get into contact with her than you do.” Keynoter says. “Powerlessness is not a feeling I’m used to, Problem Sleuth.”

“I know what you mean.” Sleuth says with a forced smile.

Wallstreet Keynoter stands up. “Is there anything else, Problem Sleuth?”

“No, that’s all I came here to talk to you about. If she calls you, tell her I need to talk to her.”

“Very well,” Keynoter says. He offers his hand for a shake. Sleuth grabs it. Sleuth gets vigorously shaken around as a result. “It was good to see you again, Problem Sleuth, though I wish we could have this meeting under better circumstances.”

“Circumstances are usually like this.” Sleuth smirks.

“I meant my circumstances.” Keynoter says with a grin. “I know you get into trouble all the time. Try to keep yourself out of it for a change.”

“I’ll try.” Sleuth says. “Good to see you again.” Sleuth opens the door and leaves the room. He closes the door behind him.

Litigious Lawyer is outside the office staring out across the city, looking at nothing in particular. “You ever miss it, Sleuth?” Lawyer says.

Problem Sleuth joins him in taking in the view. “Miss what?”

“Working with the big man. Fighting the good fight. Having a purpose. You know?” Lawyer says as he glances at Sleuth.

“Oh, no.” Sleuth says. “Don’t tell me you’re nostalgic for senseless warfare.”

Lawyer shakes his head. “No, it’s not that at all.” He says. “I miss working with you. And Inspector and Dick. I have a lot of fond memories of that.”

Sleuth shifts his weight around on his feet. “Look, I do too, but the fond memories are soured by who we were fighting. I don’t even want to say it.”

“Derse.”

Sleuth glares. “Yeah.”

“It still seems like that sometimes. You got the Midnight Crew and Snowman on one side, and then you got the big man and his wife on the other side. They’re not fighting the same way anymore, but they’re still working at each other.” Lawyer muses.

“That’s not because they were from some place we were told was the enemy. That’s because they’ve got a sour disposition. And Wealthy Quantifier and Wallstreet Keynoter a good one.”

Lawyer looks down at his feet. “I know you’re right.”

“When you got people like Wellmannered Vicemayor and Mobster Kingpin being the opposite of what you’d expect from where they came from, that distinction starts to lose its meaning.” Sleuth says. “And that’s just the high profile examples.”

“I know.” Lawyer says. A tense moment of silence passes between them. “Don’t you wish you could do more against the Felt and the Midnight Crew? They’ve got this city in a vise grip.”

“I’m doing all I can.” Sleuth says. “Not least of all because they keep finding me. But it’s not like I’m on a crusade to stop them or anything. I’m just doing what I’m getting paid to do.”

"Maybe you'd like to start one."

Sleuth shakes his head. "I'm not that kind of man." Sleuth says. "I'd have to quit doing half the things I do if I wanted to suddenly become righteous."

Lawyer lets a moment pass. He looks at Sleuth with a smile on his face. “With friends like the Midnight Crew and the Felt how are you still alive after all this time?”

Sleuth smiles. “Sometimes I don’t even know.” He turns to leave. “I’ll see you around, Lawyer.”

“Take care of yourself, Sleuth.”

Sleuth rings the elevator and rides to the ground floor.

Well, that was a giant waste of time.

Problem Sleuth: Rant.

Stupid tightlipped socialites.

If you had known at the beginning of the day that by the end you would’ve been jumped twice and you’d be no closer than you were yesterday to finding the Sapphire of Alternia, you would’ve stayed at home.

Sleuth wonders about what he’s supposed to do now. He could go shake some low level Felt thugs down for information. Any information. Maybe they’re getting close to finding the piece of junk. Who knows.

Or he could say to hell with this case and go look into that other case instead. The one that hasn’t gone cold. The one with evidence he still needs to look at. The one he’s going to get his ass thrown in the slammer for.

Sleuth reaches the ground floor and exits the elevator. Inside is a convention of nervous security guards. As he makes his way past towards the exit he understands why. He leaves the building.

“Problem Sleuth.” A green man in a maroon hat greets him.

“Crowbar.” Sleuth responds. “Glad you could come by. I needed a ride. What’s your rate?”

Crowbar gives a grin full of contempt. He’s waiting beside two green sedans. Flanking him are Itchy, Die, Eggs, and Biscuits. Crowbar hefts his namesake and steps right in front of Problem Sleuth. “We need to talk. Get in. I’m not going to tell you twice.” He says, pointing to a car with his crowbar. “I’m in a bad mood because of you.”

Sleuth looks over the Felt. This isn’t a fight he can win. This isn’t a fight he can even run away from. He has no choice. He starts walking to the car. “Really? I don’t remember doing anything to you. What’s the matter?”

Crowbar prods Sleuth in the back as he gets inside. “I’ll tell you all about it.” Crowbar enters, Itchy gets in the driver seat, and the car takes off.

==>

Make that three times.

Wealthy Quantifier needs to pay you four times as much as she is now to make this worth your while.

Chapter Text

Problem Sleuth looks to his side. Crowbar is staring straight ahead at the road. “You gonna tell me what this is about?”

“Not in here.” Crowbar answers.

“What?” Sleuth asks. “Is it Itchy? Do you need to get away from his smell first?”

“Fuck you, Problem Sleuth.” Itchy pipes up.

Crowbar grins at the comment. “No,” He answers. “We need to go someplace first.”

“Where?”

“You’ll see.”

The rest of the ride is spent in silence. Sleuth watches the surroundings as they pass by. The skyscrapers of downtown turn into smaller buildings housing apartments and shops. Then briefly through a warehouse district, and then to factories, refineries, processing plants. The setting sun cast spooky shadows across the area, giving the isolated buildings an almost skeletal appearance. Itchy pulls into the parking lot of a factory and parks the car.

This would be a great place to torture and murder someone.

“Get out.” Crowbar orders. He and Itchy exit.

Problem Sleuth opens his door. Biscuits grabs him by his arm and yanks him out of the car. Eggs grabs hold of his other and the pair drag Sleuth as they follow Crowbar to the factory entrance. He strikes the padlock off with his crowbar and throws open the door. Sleuth is dragged through first, with Itchy and Die following. Crowbar closes the door behind him.

Biscuits and Eggs throw him against the wall on the factory floor. Sleuth straightens his coat and hat. “Now you gonna tell me what this is about?” He asks as Crowbar walks into the loose semicircle around Problem Sleuth.

“I’ve kept you waiting long enough.” Crowbar says as he rests his weapon on his shoulder. “You met Fin and Trace today.”

Was that supposed to be a question? “Yeah.” Sleuth answers. “I hope they didn’t bring bad news back to the mansion.” Sleuth says with a smirk.

Crowbar’s expression goes blank. “That’s the thing.” He says. “Snowman had a few things to say about that. Since Fin and Trace weren’t anywhere nearby, well.” Crowbar trails off with a toss of his head. “She took it out on me.”

Crowbar rushes at Sleuth, catching him off guard. Crowbar pins Sleuth’s neck between the wall and his crowbar, choking him. Sleuth gasps for air. “Snowman’s got a bit of a temper.” Crowbar growls at Sleuth, staring him straight in the eye. “Now imagine she’s got her whip around your neck and a heel in your back, and she’s pushing with her legs and pulling with her arms. It might feel something like this.”

Sleuth tries to turn his head, offering his jugular to be squeezed instead of his trachea. He tries to chuckle but it just comes out as desperate gasps. “Fun and games at the Felt mansion, huh?” He manages to wheeze out.

Crowbar breaks away from Sleuth, taking a step back. Problem Sleuth narrowly blocks a crowbar headed to his head with his forearms. “Funny, Sleuth.”

Sleuth catches his breath.

“So as she’s choking the life out of me,” Crowbar says, tugging at his collar. “She tells me how I’m incompetent, that I should be ashamed for serving her so poorly, that of my many flaws my dismal lack of intelligence is the worst.” Crowbar shakes his head lightly. “So she finally lets up when I’m nearly gone. And then she tells me that the only thing her light counterpart would hire you for is to find one thing and one thing only. Take a guess what it is.”

Problem Sleuth shoves his hands in his coat pockets. “Her collection of priceless books.” He grins.

Crowbar chuckles. “No.” He swings his crowbar at Sleuth’s midsection. The crowbar collides with Sleuth’s pocketed hand. Sleuth grunts, but hides his pain. “So she tells me to find you, to hunt you down, and to do whatever it takes to get you to tell us where the Sapphire of Alternia is!” Crowbar finishes with a shout. "So you can understand why I'm in a bad mood because of you."

Sleuth coolly takes his aching hand and uses it to put a cigarette in his mouth. He shakily lights the cigarette. “I'm sorry for that, Crowbar. But I don’t know where it is.” He blows smoke in Crowbar’s direction.

Crowbar stares at him. “Eggs, Biscuits.” Crowbar points to Sleuth. They grab his arms and pin them against the wall, leaving Sleuth’s midsection undefended.

Crowbar grabs and tosses away Sleuth’s cigarette. “Are you sure you want to do this, Sleuth? This thing has killed before.” He says, patting his crowbar in his hand. “I don’t think you’ll last long.”

“But you’re not gonna kill me. Else how would I tell you where the Sapphire is?” Sleuth says. “I’ll make it easy for the both of us, and repeat what I said. I don’t know where it is.”

Sleuth grunts in pain as the Crowbar hits his abdomen. Despite the pain, it was a light blow. “Where is it, Sleuth?” Crowbar asks.

“I don’t know.” Sleuth says.

Crowbar hits Sleuth in his calf. Crowbar asks again.

Sleuth answers.

Crowbar hits Sleuth in his knee. Crowbar asks again.

Sleuth answers.

Crowbar hits Sleuth in his ribs. Crowbar asks again.

Sleuth answers.

Crowbar hits Sleuth again in his ribs. “You’re going to die here.”

“And I’ll die telling you the truth!” Sleuth shouts. “What makes you think I know where it is?”

“You were at her house!” Crowbar shouts.

“And I didn’t find anything.” Sleuth says. “You amateurs.” Sleuth growls.

Crowbar grips his weapon. “Say that again.”

“Yeah, that’s right. The Felt ain’t nothing but a bunch of amateurs who run around with their time powers making a mess out of everything!” Sleuth shouts. “I swear, if the Midnight Crew-”

Sleuth blacks out for a moment as the crowbar hits his head. Blood flow blocks his vision in one eye. He picks his head up to see blood dripping off the crowbar. “Why don’t you think for a damn second.” Sleuth shouts. “The place was robbed. I didn’t do that.”

Crowbar puts the edge of his weapon on the ground and rests on it. “So you’re finally in a talking mood. Alright, let’s talk.” Crowbar says.

“How about you tell these brutes to lay off.” Sleuth says with an angry glance at Eggs and Biscuits.

“We’re not brutes!” Biscuits says.

“We’re smart!” Eggs says.

“Of course you guys are.” Crowbar says with a sigh. “Be the smart guys you are and let him go for a second.”

“Okay, Crowbar.” Says Eggs. Problem Sleuth falls to the ground. He struggles to stand himself up.

“Let’s start at the beginning, Sleuth.” Crowbar says, sitting on his haunches as Sleuth gets off of all fours. “What did Wealthy Quantifier hire you to look into? If you don’t feel like talking we can always go back to this.” He says as he taps the crowbar on the cement floor.

Sleuth shakily stands himself up. He wobbles but remains standing. “She wanted me to find some stolen property of hers. So she sent me to her house.” Sleuth says.

“She didn’t tell you what you were looking for.” Crowbar asks as he stands up.

“No.”

“What did you find there?”

“Missing valuables. Really valuables.”

“Itchy,” Crowbar says.

“Yep, everything with a three digit price tag was taken, though I may have helped myself to the things with a two digit price tag, if you know-“

“Thanks, Itchy.” Crowbar cuts off. “So what makes you think you’re looking for the Sapphire?”

“She wasn’t wearing it.” Sleuth wobbles. “But she was in her pictures.”

“Itchy,”

“I didn’t look at any damn pictures. I couldn’t get a good look running around the damn place.”

“Why do you think it’s the Sapphire of Alternia?” Sleuth asks.

“That was Snowman. She heard Wealthy Quantifier’s place was robbed and ordered us to start looking for the Sapphire of Alternia.” Crowbar explains.

“Immediately after?” Sleuth asks.

“Immediately after.” Crowbar says.

“The hit on the Midnight Crew?”

“Also Snowman.”

“Well, sounds like I need to talk to her.” Sleuth says. “Can I set up an appointment with you for that?”

“I’m not the Felt’s secretary. And that’s unlikely even in the best of cases.” Crowbar says. He twirls his crowbar in his fingers. “So where is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Eggs, Biscuits.” Crowbar orders.

The brutes grab him by the arms and pin him up against the wall again.

“You just about killed me and now you’re looking to finish the job. Do you think I’d really lie in a situation like this?” Sleuth asks.

“Honestly, you’re a damn good liar.” Crowbar says, readying his weapon. “One last time. Where is it?”

“Thanks for the flattery, but still,” Sleuth says. “I don’t know.” He repeats.

Sleuth gets a crowbar to the stomach. He barely holds in his lunch. Did he eat lunch at all? Maybe that’s why he held it in.

“So when we found you by Keynote Bank, Wallstreet Keynoter didn’t tell you where to look.” Crowbar says. “I find that pretty difficult to believe.”

“He didn’t know where it is either. I can’t find a necklace if nobody knows where to look.” Sleuth says. “And if he did know, why would he tell me?”

Crowbar ponders that for a moment. “Die,”

“Uhhh, yeah, Crowbar?” Die nervously asks.

“See what he knows.” Crowbar orders.

Die pulls his voodoo doll out of his coat and fishes around for the right pin. Die pulls out a pin with a ring holding three miniature keys at its end. He jams it into the voodoo doll and disappears.

“So this means you believe me?” Sleuth says.

“If you know something, I’m going to kill you for keeping it from me.”

Die pops back.

“So?” Crowbar asks.

“Problem Sleuth, uh, died saying he didn’t know where Wealthy Quantifier’s necklace was.” Die reports.

“So you are telling the truth.” Crowbar says. “Or you died lying.” He touches Sleuth’s chin with his weapon.

Problem Sleuth glares. “And what makes you think you’re going to get anything else out of me?” He says with a smile growing on his lips.

Crowbar turns his chin upward for a moment and narrows his eyes. “You have a point.” Crowbar lowers his weapon. “Eggs, Biscuits, drop him.”

Sleuth slumps to the floor, slipping on the small puddle of blood from his last encounter.

“Quit looking for the Sapphire of Alternia. Leave that to us.” Crowbar says. “We’ll be watching you, so if you even think about looking for it, we’ll know.” Crowbar says. “We’re leaving.” He says to the rest of the Felt.

“Can we play with our timer now?” Eggs asks Crowbar on the way out. “We were good, weren’t we?”

“Yeah, we wanna play with the timer! It’s no fun with only two of us.” Biscuits joins in.

“No, quit asking.” Crowbar says. The Felt exit the factory.

Problem Sleuth: Get up.

You can’t. It hurts too much.

It’s pretty relaxing here, though, kissing the smoothed concrete like you are. It doesn’t taste half bad, what with your blood seasoning the floor.

Problem Sleuth: Get up.

You can’t!

This is too much of a beating for you. You’re probably going to die of internal bleeding anyway, so you might as well get as comfortable as you can in your final moments.

Problem Sleuth: Get up.

You decide to try and get up. You’ll be dead before you let the Felt keep you down.

Although you try not to think about that, since it seems like that could be a pretty likely possibility at this point.

You’re too damned hardboiled to let any mobster’s beating keep you on the floor. Maybe if you tell yourself that enough times it’ll be true.

Problem Sleuth moves his aching arms and starts to push away from the ground. It takes all of his effort to get an inch off the ground. He falls back to the ground. On his second try, he manages to lift himself off enough that he can slide a knee underneath himself.

Problem Sleuth crawls next to the wall and starts pushing himself up along it. Problem Sleuth pushes with his aching legs, and manages to, finally, stand on his feet.

==>

Nothing can keep you down for long.

With an arm covering his stomach and another holding him upright against the wall, Sleuth makes it to the exit, step by painful step. Green and Purple moonlight meet him as he carefully opens the door. He limps out of the factory.

Sleuth limps across the parking lot, the Felt already gone. He stands at the street edge and looks around. Nothing. There isn’t a phone or a cab or anything else in sight. Sure, there are factories, but how is he going to get home using those? He’s not, that’s how.

Sleuth steps down onto the street before inadvertently collapsing into a sitting position on the curb. Sleuth decides to rest for a moment.

It’s odd that Snowman is the one who spurred the Felt into action, although now that Sleuth knows this the sudden aggression from them isn’t all that surprising. If Snowman had her way all the time, or if she bothered to care, the Felt would be leaving a trail of blood across the whole city in pursuit of goals less valuable than the Sapphire of Alternia. She always did believe in striking fast and hard. Sleuth can only wonder what Snowman knows, because he’s never going to get the chance to talk to her. Even if he does, it’s not going to be a situation that favors him.

Sleuth catches sight of two pinpricks of light heading his way. Sleuth begins picking himself up. Maybe he was wrong about the kindness of strangers, and maybe this person driving the car would be willing to give a bloody man in a fedora a lift to more populated areas. It’s not like it would be dangerous for him, what with every major gang keeping tabs on Problem Sleuth.

Sleuth walks a few steps into the road and puts a smile on his face and starts waving. The car stops, blinding Sleuth with the headlights. The car door opens and somebody steps out.

“Somebody looks like they had a rough day.”

Problem Sleuth looks upward and starts laughing. “Transportation Deferrer, do you have any idea how happy I am to see you?”

Transportation Deferrer walks up to him. Sleuth throws an arm over her shoulder. “Oh, I’ll bet you’re happy. But this is a pretty big favor, you know, coming all the way out here. What are you going to do for me?” She says with a teasing tone.

“What are you even doing out here?” Sleuth asks as Deferrer helps him limp to the taxi.

“I got a call from Wallstreet Keynoter, can you believe it? Said I was supposed to pick you up at Keynote Bank. And then I saw them.” Deferrer says with seriousness. “So I, uh, scrammed. Sorry, Sleuth.”

“Wasn’t anything you could do about that.”

“I did follow them, though. In case there was anything left of ya when they were done.” Deferrer says as she opens the back door of the cab.

Sleuth hobbles in. “So you just happened to get a call from the only person I set out to visit today, and you were so concerned about me you followed the Felt out here.”

Deferrer hops in the driver seat. “Crazy, I know! I never even talked to Wallstreet Keynoter before, and then he calls my cab services out of the blue. Seems like a nice guy.” Deferrer says as she buckles herself in and starts driving. “Home, I’m guessing?” Deferrer asks as she looks through the rearview mirror.

Sleuth nods. “I ain’t done for today yet. One more thing I’ve gotta do.”

Chapter Text

“So what are you even looking into?” Transportation Deferrer asks as her car slides around corners at top speed.

“You know when I asked you to keep your distance?” Sleuth asks.

Deferrer nods.

“Glad I did.” He says. “The Midnight Crew and the Felt were all over me today. Wanting to know where I’ve been, what I’ve done, what I know. They’re looking for something big, and it’s probably best I don’t say.”

“So what does that have to with Wallstreet Keynoter?”

“Nothing. Not directly. It’s got more to do with Wealthy Quantifier.” Sleuth says. “Her place was robbed.” Sleuth answers before Deferrer can ask the question.

“So, if her place was robbed, and she hired you to look into it, and the Midnight Crew and the Felt are looking into you,” Deferrer says, thinking out loud. “Are you looking for the Sapphire of Alternia?” She blurts out.

Problem Sleuth throws his head back onto the seat and slaps his forehead. “Does everybody know?” He asks himself, half laughing. Maybe it’s not so remarkable that Snowman would know what to look for after all.

Deferrer laughs. “Sleuth, you didn’t have to get yourself in so much trouble looking for the most valuable piece of jewelry on the planet. I would’ve been happy with a cheap diamond ring.” Deferrer grins. “Cheap compared to the Sapphire of Alternia, anyway. I won’t let you skimp out on me, Sleuth.”

“I wouldn’t think of it.” Sleuth says indifferently. Deferrer shoots him a playful glare through the mirror. “Nobody tried to bother you?” Sleuth asks, changing the subject.

“No idea.” Deferrer says. “If anybody tried to bother me they couldn’t keep up. I’ve been too busy being a menace to the road.”

Sleuth waits a moment. “Keep doing that.”

“Business as usual, then.”

Deferrer drives to Sleuth’s apartment, skidding to a stop by the curb to his building. She unbuckles and gets out of the car, opening Sleuth’s door.

“No, I’ll be fine.” Sleuth protests as Deferrer offers to help. He puts his legs outside of the car, still sitting on the seat. He slides out onto his feet. He falls over from pain.

Deferrer stands with her hands on her hips shaking her head. “Quit being so damned hardboiled, Sleuth. I won’t think less of ya if ya need help getting into your apartment.”

Sleuth struggles for a moment. “Fine.” He relents. Deferrer throws his arm over her neck and lifts him up.

“Heavy bastard.” She mutters. “Why couldn’t you just shoot ‘em and save yourself the trouble.”

Sleuth doesn’t respond. Not enough energy. Deferrer helps Sleuth into his building and then slowly up the stairs. She helps him down the hall to his apartment. As soon as Sleuth reaches for the door it opens. Persevering Maillady’s excited smile quickly turns to confusion.

“Who are you?” Maillady asks Deferrer.

“Who are you?” Deferrer returns the question.

“I’m his mailwoman.” Maillady says with indignation while pointing at Sleuth.

“I’m his cab driver.” Deferrer says with jealousy.

“Just get me in my damn apartment.” Sleuth barks. Maillady suddenly notices the shape Sleuth is in. She throws Sleuth’s free arm across her neck and the two woman shuffle Sleuth in. “The table, sit me there.” He says.

Maillady and Deferrer move Sleuth to his small dining table and plop him down in a seat. Sleuth takes his hat off, the crusted blood keeping it to his head. Sleuth looks it over. Getting this thing clean is going to be a pain.

“How long have you known him?” Maillady asks, arms folded across her chest.

“Since he became a problem sleuth. How long have you known him?” Deferrer asks, arms similarly folded.

“Since he wandered the wasteland.” Maillady says with a triumphant grin.

Deferrer huffs.

“Really?” Sleuth asks.

Deferrer giggles. Maillady grin turns into a crestfallen frown. “Yeah,” She says. “Don’t you remember?” Sleuth shakes his head. “It was in that one camp a couple hundred years ago. You told me war stories.” Sleuth shakes his head again. “You were playing up your wandering broken veteran soldier status to get women who would pity you.”

“Um.” Sleuth raises his brow. “Did it work?”

“No!” Maillady shouts.

“Oh, dammit, I do remember that. You slapped me and asked me what kind of girl I thought you were.” Sleuth says, rubbing his temple and examining the blood on his fingers as a result. “I wish you hadn’t reminded me of that.”

“See?” Maillady says looking at Deferrer with her triumphant grin turning into a smug one.

Deferrer rolls her eyes. “So what? You haven't known him since then. You just met him on the wasteland. I did that too.”

“You did?” Sleuth asks, similarly confused.

“I almost ran you over with a dune buggy.”

“That was you?” Sleuth asks. “You didn’t almost run me over.” Sleuth glares. Maillady giggles to herself.

“But you hopped up so quickly!” Deferrer says guiltily. “I just figured I’d miss-”

“Whatever.” Sleuth cuts in. “Both of you know me equally well.” Sleuth placates indifferently. He extends his hand to Maillady. “You have a package for me?” He asks.

“Oh, of course!” Maillady suddenly remembers. She moves to her bag and pulls out Sleuth’s manila envelope from the day before. She hands it to him and he opens the package.

“I thought I told you to drop it here.” Sleuth chastises. “Waiting here was dangerous.”

“I wanted to deliver it personally so that nobody could take it from here after I left.” Maillady explains. “Besides, if anybody came, I have this.” She says as she holds up her letter opener.

“You just wanted to see him. Catch him alone at his apartment.” Deferrer interrupts.

“What?” Maillady says in exasperation. “I did not!”

“It’s written all over your face!”

“Then what are you doing? You had the same idea!”

“So you admit it!”

“Ha, and I just got you to admit it!”

Problem Sleuth: Look at last lead.

You ignore the fight taking place around you and instead focus on your unexamined piece of evidence. Hopefully this will provide clues where nothing else has.

==>

You pull out Murdered Courier’s recent client notebook. You flip to the last page.

Lots of numbers and names. If there’s anything to find here it’s going to need some work.

Though maybe there’s a way to narrow down your search a little.

Problem Sleuth: Ask for telephone.

You ask your arguing... what would you call them? Clients? You haven’t worked any cases for them. Patrons? No, that doesn’t work either. Helpers? That’s not really their job descriptions.

You can’t call them your favorite businesses, because Maillady gets her paycheck from the taxpayer, and you can’t call them your favorite civil servants, because Deferrer is self-employed.

You ask the two arguing women in the room for the telephone. They provide you the phone without break in the argument, but your request provides more fuel for it.

Maybe you should do something about it.

==>

You call Anarchy Repressor.

He picks up after the fourth ring. You tell him it’s you. He asks what you want. You tell him you’ve got Movement Contractor’s client list here in front of you and you want to know if he can help cross some names off the list from the addresses the both of you found in the guy’s pockets two nights ago.

He says sure thing, let him get the case notes. He asks what’s going on in the room. You say nothing, just some argument over you. Repressor says you’re a real lucky guy to squander the affection of two beautiful women like that by having a steady girlfriend. You tell him you’d feel guilty taking advantage of them like that. He asks you to pass them on to him then, since the mail one’s just his type and the cab driver ain’t half bad either. You say you’ll ask them.

Problem Sleuth: Ask them.

You tell him they say no.

He says that’s too bad, but he’s got the case notes now. He gives you a list of addresses that got their packages and you cross them off your list. He then gives you the addresses that they couldn’t follow up on and you circle them on your list. You tell him that some of those are pick-up addresses for clients who already got their packages, so it actually narrows down your work a lot.

You tell him thanks for the help. He asks if you’re any closer to finding which of the green bastards did it. You tell him it wasn’t the Felt. He asks who did it if the Midnight Crew and the Felt didn’t do it. You say you don’t know. He reminds you about what he brought you to the station for. You tell him thanks for the reminder and hang up.

“You’ll never be with him!” Deferrer shouts.

“And neither will you, but that hasn’t stopped you from throwing yourself at him shamelessly!”

Deferrer gasps. “How dare you!”

“Hey,” Sleuth interjects in the argument. The room settles down.

“Yeah, Sleuth?” They both ask.

Sleuth glances between the two of them. “Keep it down, would ya?”

Deferrer and Maillady sit down at the table across from each other and continue their argument in hushed voices. “You started this.” Deferrer says.

“No, I didn’t. You gave me that jealous look first.” Maillady retorts.

Sleuth ignores them as he looks at the client list. Corporate Merger. Antitrust Magnate. Produce Freshkeeper. Suffering Writer. Quiet Welltodo. Maniac Researcher. Desert Venturer. Energetic Ecologist. Any one of these could be the client whose cargo did Murdered Courier in. Nothing to do but find out.

Sleuth picks up the phone and starts dialing numbers, glad that Murdered Courier had such good bookkeeping. He starts at the top. “Corporate Merger?” Sleuth asks as the other end picks up the phone.

“Yes?” A man responds.

“My name is Problem Sleuth, I’m a private detective. I’m investigating Movement Contractor’s murder. You hired him, correct?”

“That’s right.”

“Did you receive your package? Or did your package get delivered”

“Yes, it did.”

“Thank you for the help, that’s all.”

Problem Sleuth crosses the name off the list. After several calls, his list is narrowed even further. Problem Sleuth considers the two remaining names on his list. Judging by the name, whatever Energetic Ecologist had Murdered Courier move, it probably wasn’t worth killing over. Although that’s not necessarily a good assumption to make, Sleuth ignores the name for now.

That leaves Quiet Welltodo.

Problem Sleuth: Have epiphany.

Son of a bitch.

Son of a bitch!

Is this what you think it is? Because it looks like what you think is.

Problem Sleuth fishes around in his coat pocket for Wealthy Quantifier’s number. Transportation Deferrer and Persevering Maillady notice Sleuth’s aggravated state.

“What’s wrong?” Maillady asks.

Problem Sleuth ignores the question as he dials the number. He holds the receiver up to his ear and waits for an answer.

The phone rings. And it keeps on ringing. And it doesn’t stop ringing. Sleuth waits. Maybe Wealthy Quantifier is away. Maybe she can’t get to the phone in time. Or maybe she’s jerking Sleuth around.

Sleuth slams the receiver down on the phone, ringing it loudly in the process. With strength he didn’t know he had he stands up out of his chair, throws his coat onto the floor, rips off his tie, throws the door to his bedroom open and slams it shut behind him.

Deferrer and Maillady look at each other uneasily. “What was that about?” Deferrer asks.

“I don’t know.” Maillady replies. “Was it us?”

“I don’t think so.”

Problem Sleuth: Fume.

You don’t like sneaky clients. And Wealthy Quantifier’s the sneakiest one you ever had.

Apparently it’s too much to ask that she tell you straight up what’s going on from the start. That would make things too easy. No, she has to test your reputation as the top problem sleuth in the city while she’s at it, because she’s got money and she wants to make you dance.

You should have figured that Wealthy Quantifier would’ve been involved in the murder of that courier somehow. You honestly don’t know why you didn’t see it coming. He dies, she comes in your office the next day. Clear logical connection.

You’ve never been so frustrated with a case before. You seriously think you might drop it. Let the Midnight Crew and the Felt tear each other apart looking for the Sapphire of Alternia. Call Anarchy Repressor and tell him Wealthy Quantifier shot the courier, just to spite her. Wash your hands of the whole damn thing.

Your two separate cases have been one case. And you still don’t have any answers for it.

Problem Sleuth rubs his temples and stares at the ceiling. Before he notices he falls asleep.

Chapter Text

The phone rings. It firsts works its way into Problem Sleuth’s dreams as an annoying ringing before he realizes it’s actually the phone. He starts the slow process of pulling his eyes apart. Green moonlight filters in through the blinds on the window, illuminating the clock on the wall. The middle of the night. Whoever’s calling you better have a damn good reason for calling you in the middle of the night.

Problem Sleuth reaches over and picks up the phone. “Hello?” He sleepily mumbles.

Nobody immediately answers.

“Hello?” Sleuth asks again, annoyed. “Look, whoever you are, I don’t appreciate being crank called in the middle of the night, so if you don’t start talking I’m-”

“You’re long overdue for answers.” The woman on the other end finally speaks. “Meet me at Alternia Park. Come alone.” She hangs up.

==>

You’re pretty sure you know who that was.

Doesn’t mean you have to like it.

Problem Sleuth hangs up the receiver and lies back on the bed. His sheets are going to need washing soon, with how he’s getting his clothes bloody and dirty getting into fights all the time. And then how he sleeps in his clothes all the time and spreads the filth. Another problem for some other day.

He sits himself up on his bed. He’s sore. Damn sore. But it’s not as bad as it was when he got home. He stands himself up. It hurts, but it’s manageable. He opens the door out of his bedroom.

==>

You’re surprised the building’s still standing, much more that your apartment hasn’t been torn to shreds.

Problem Sleuth flips on a light. Transportation Deferrer and Persevering Maillady must have cleared out a couple hours ago. Sleuth’s hat and coat and tie are on the table. Most of the crusted blood has been washed off but his clothing items still bear red stains. That was nice of them, whoever did that.

Sleuth walks back into his bedroom and into the bathroom. He flips on the light and squints at the sudden brightness. He looks into the mirror.

==>

Hello, handsome.

Those black eyes, bruised jaws, and gashes all over your face accentuate your rugged natural features. You should get some more. It really works well for you.

You probably will.

Sleuth grabs a washcloth, wets it, and starts cleaning his head and neck off. Filth, scabs, and sweat all come off his face. He’s nowhere near presentable. But it’s a start. If Wealthy Quantifier expects tidiness from the men she hires, well, she’s got another thing coming.

How is Sleuth even going to get to Alternia Park? He doesn’t have a car. He can’t, more like doesn’t, want to call Transportation Deferrer. Best to keep her as uninvolved as possible, and Sleuth doesn’t want to face either her or Maillady right now.

Sleuth turns off the faucet and throws the washcloth on the counter. He walks into the bedroom and picks up the phone. Time to ask for a favor.

Problem Sleuth: Call backup.

It’s not that you think Wealthy Quantifier’s dangerous. It’s all the people who are after her sapphires you gotta worry about.

You’d feel a lot more at ease if you had somebody you trust watching your back.

Ace Dick: Take the call.

You can’t take the call because you’re not near a phone!

==>

You hang up. What the hell is that short fat bastard up to?

He’s probably busy snoring like a freight train with all his phones’ receivers smashed against a wall for a bit of fun or repossessed by the phone company for not paying the bills.

You always assume the worst case scenario about Ace Dick.

Pickle Inspector: Express similar aggravation about being called in the middle of the night.

You pick up the phone. You politely inform the person on the other end that it is considered rude to call an individual at such a late hour unless there is an important issue.

You are quite certain you made your point. Whoever called you knows you mean business.

==>

On the other end is Problem Sleuth. He says he needs back up.

You inform him that you will arrive at his apartment shortly.

Problem Sleuth hangs up the phone and moves to the main room of his apartment. He ties his tie, throws on his hat, and puts on his coat. He grabs his key, and checks the amount of bullets. He moves to the kitchen and opens the freezer and pulls out a box of bullets, loading them into his gun. He pulls a drum for his key ring and reloads it. He holds his hairpin up to his eye. He’s going to need to visit an ammo store to get this thing reloaded. There’s not enough room in his ammo safe for belts holding large caliber bullets.

==>

You’re locked and loaded.

Time to see what this dame wants.

Problem Sleuth closes the door to the freezer and walks to the door. He turns the doorknob. It’s locked.

==>

How is this door even locked? Maybe one of them has a key to your apartment that they haven’t told you about. You should ask them about that sometime.

It’s dangerous to have keys without a permit. Not that you have one. In fact, you’re pretty sure carrying around a military grade hairpin is a felony. Regardless, they shouldn’t be carrying around dangerous unlocking tools like that without knowing how to use them.

You’re concerned for their safety, of course, and you’re not the least bit jealous about them being able to lock your apartment door when you can’t.

==>

You return things to their natural state and flip the deadbolt. Your apartment is open to all comers, just like it was always meant to be.

Problem Sleuth closes the door behind him and heads down to the street. Pickle Inspector pulls up in his car at the same time. He doffs his hat at Sleuth, and Sleuth gives him a wave.

“Move over, Inspector.” Sleuth says with mock authority. “I’m driving.”

Pickle Inspector puts the car in park and moves to the passenger seat. Like a sap. Problem Sleuth opens the driver’s door and gets in the car. “You’re a sap, Inspector.”

Pickle Inspector smiles. “So you have indicated on previous occasions.”

Problem Sleuth puts the car in drive and starts driving. “What kind of man lets another man drive his car?” Sleuth chastises. “It’s damn shameful, is what it is.”

“What kind of man takes from others for the sole reason that he can?” Inspector retorts.

Sleuth gives it a moment’s thought. “Fair enough.”

Silence passes between the two for a moment. “What will I be assisting you with, Sleuth?” Inspector asks.

“I’m meeting Wealthy Quantifier in Alternia Park. The Midnight Crew and the Felt are watching me. It’s about the Sapphire of Alternia.” Pickle Inspector stares at Sleuth. Sleuth takes his eyes off the road to meet Inspector’s ogle. His eyes are wide with surprise. But unmoving. And unnerving. “Stop that.”

“That explains everything quite concisely.” Inspector says. “Fortunate that I came prepared.” Inspector pulls his sextant out of his coat and looks it over.

“Have you used that thing recently?” Sleuth asks.

“No.” Inspector replies, looking over the sniper rifle. “But I am still more than capable with it.”

“Diamonds Droog could be out there. You think you still got it enough to beat him?”

“Diamonds Droog.” Inspector scoffs. “He knows marksmanship like Ace Dick knows fantasyscapes and Spades Slick knows self control.”

“Just had to make sure, Inspector.” Sleuth grins. “Where is Dick anyway? Seems like he’s been making himself scarce recently.”

“I noticed that as well.” Inspector says. “Unfortunately I have no explanation. He is a difficult person to get into contact with under normal circumstances. Perhaps this is not anything remarkable.”

“Wherever he is he needs to hurry up and make himself available. I could use somebody who can go toe to toe with Hearts Boxcars. And Cans, if Dick’s eaten something spicy.”

“I hope your meeting with Wealthy Quantifier will not require that.”

“Me too.” Sleuth says.

Problem Sleuth rounds a corner and parks alongside the street. Problem Sleuth gets out, locks the door and tosses the car keys to Pickle Inspector. He catches it with a startle.

The Alternian Nature Preserve, as it’s officially known, is an experimental effort at restoring a small piece of the dead planet’s flora. The hope among the socialites who funded it was that it would be a test run for reseeding the planet on a much larger scale. While a success, it proved prohibitively expensive, with the search for intact seeds that survived the cataclysm and hundreds of years of wasteland conditions on its own costing far too much. After the experiment, it was repurposed into a park and opened to the public.

It lies on neutral ground between the Felt and the Midnight Crew and every other gang that’s risen and fallen in this city, not as a result of indecisive conflict but through choice. Alternia Park stands as a monument to the dead planet, both to its former glory and the death of its restitution. Even the gangs understand its significance and don’t dare to disturb it.

Doesn’t mean Sleuth won’t get ambushed here. The Sapphire of Alternia is making everybody crazy.

Sleuth puts his hands in his coat pockets, gripping his key tightly. He turns to Inspector. “Watch my back.” He says. Inspector nods.

Problem Sleuth enters Alternia Park. The green and purple moons cast colored shadows in different directions. The path winds between trees whose branches reach out over it in a menacing manner. Ponds and lakes reflect lamplight dimly onto the shores, and the reflection of the moons ripple.

It is dead silent. The tapping of Sleuth’s shoes on the concrete path seems loud compared to the silence all around him.

“Problem Sleuth.”

Sleuth turns around, key drawn. Wealthy Quantifier is standing in front of him in a white trench coat. A hat with a low brim conceals her face, and in her hand is a cigarette holder. “A man could mistake you for someone else. Albeit she shows more leg, and the black carapace works better for her during the night anyway.” Sleuth says, putting his key away.

Wealthy Quantifier huffs. “I am not fond of comparisons to my dark counterpart even though by my very existence such comparisons are naturally invited. I suppose the day suits me better, doesn’t it?” Sleuth nods. “And the night likewise suits her better. Even as former monarchs we each seemed to have gained separate yet opposed domains.” She says. “I have been following you since you entered the park, Problem Sleuth. I expected that you would have noticed immediately.”

“You’re dead quiet. I didn’t notice a thing. Good thing you’re not out to kill me.” Sleuth says. “Or are you.” He frowns accusatorily.

“You deserve more than I’ve given you, but we’ll discuss that in a moment. Pickle Inspector,” Quantifier calls in a sing song. “You can come out now.”

Pickle Inspector sheepishly walks from behind a tree towards Sleuth and Quantifier.

“He noticed me. I waved to him. Perhaps I should have hired him instead of you. I would assume a basic quality desirable in a private detective would be noticing when somebody is being followed.”

Sleuth glares. Pickle Inspector takes position beside Problem Sleuth and doffs his hat and bows. “It is an honor to meet you again, ma’am.”

“Please, Inspector. That’s unnecessary.” Quantifier says. She scans around the park. “It appears you’re missing a man. Where is the third member of your triumphant triumvirate, defeater of the malevolent mastermind of clandestine crime, Mobster Kingpin?”

“We don’t know.” Sleuth says annoyed.

“Interesting.” Quantifier says.

“How about you quit being tightlipped over just about everything and start telling me what I want to know!” Sleuth shouts.

“Sleuth!” Pickle Inspector shouts in surprise. “This is no way to treat her! She deserves our utmost respect.”

“Listen, Inspector, you got the short version. But this woman,” Sleuth points. “Put me through the two worst days of hell I’ve had in a very long time. I’ve been shot at, followed, beat up, three times, no less, questioned by the police, the Midnight Crew, and the Felt, and what do I find at the end of it? A dead end.” Sleuth says. “I’m running low on respect for clients who aren’t straight with me from the start, and she’s the worst example I’ve ever had.”

Pickle Inspector’s mouth is wide open in shock. A wry grin is spread across Wealthy Quantifier’s lips. “I deserved that, of course.” She admits. “Are you finished?” She asks.

“And all for you damned necklace!” Sleuth finishes. Sleuth looks at the cigarette holder. “And what the hell are you smoking for, I thought you didn’t.”

“Oh, this? You’re right, I don’t smoke.” Wealthy Quantifier says, holding up her cigarette holder. “It’s a trick I learned from my counterpart. It’s for effect. It makes me mysterious if I hold this. Wouldn’t you agree?” She asks. “Although now that you point it out, this is all rather silly.” She looks around. “Except I don’t see any ash trays so I suppose I’ll just have to hold it and look ridiculous while maintaining my air of mystery.” She looks at Sleuth. Sleuth looks flabbergasted. “What? You did ask. Although this does highlight a terrible habit I have.”

“And what’s that?” Sleuth asks.

“Frustratingly mysterious. And I have been that in spades recently.” She admits. “Problem Sleuth, I know you have been trying to contact me. I have been ignoring you deliberately. I’m certain you have questions. I will answer them.”

“You did that deliberately?” Sleuth asks in a raised voice. “And why the hell would you do something like that?”

“It is a very terrible habit.” She says, again with that damned wry smile. “I gave you just enough detail and a direction to look. It appears your reputation as the top problem sleuth in the city is well-earned. Indeed, with little other guidance and input on my part, you discovered everything I wanted you to and more than I expected you to. And in only two days’ time.” Quantifier says. “I must admit, I am very impressed with your progress.”

Sleuth glares. “I don’t like you jerking me around.”

“I apologize. Just as you have a natural inclination to solving problems and making powerful enemies, I have inclinations of my own which I have unfortunately inflicted upon you. But enough talk about myself.” She finishes. “Continue with your questions.”

“You and Murdered Courier.”

“Movement Contractor.”

“Whatever.” Sleuth says. “You hired him to move the Sapphire of Alternia.”

“I did.”

“Where to?”

“That’s irrelevant. Needless to say it would have been somewhere safe. His murder unfortunately caught me by surprise.”

“It caught you by surprise? What are you talking about?” Sleuth asks.

“I did not anticipate that the courier would be killed, nor even intercepted at all. Thus I had to think of a plan and quickly. I apologize, I made a considerable mistake and I need to correct it as soon as possible. You factor heavily into this, but I knew of no other way to convince you to assist me other than through monetary gain. But enough,” Wealthy Quantifier waves her hand. “Ask a different question. Ones whose answers will confirm what you already know instead of ones that necessitate more questions. That will be the most efficient way to get through this midnight rendezvous.”

“Who killed him?” Sleuth asks.

“Who did you think it was? Even when you were wrong.”

“At first I thought it was the Midnight Crew. And then I thought it was the Felt. Both of them said they didn’t do it.”

Quantifier waits a moment. “Neither of them killed Movement Contractor.”

“Then who did?” Sleuth asks.

“That’s getting ahead of ourselves. There’s a few more questions you need to ask.”

Sleuth sighs and glares. “Where is the Sapphire of Alternia?”

“An excellent question. One tied intricately with who killed Movement Contractor. Unfortunately I do not know where it is, else I could recover it myself.” She says. “Keep going.”

“Who robbed you?”

“Excellent question, and very astute of you to ask. But please, there’s one more question.”

Sleuth puzzles for a moment. What is she getting at? Sleuth has asked about the connection between Quantifier and Contractor, who murdered him, where the Sapphire of Alternia was. Everything revolves around that stupid necklace. But why? It’s just a jewel. Or that’s what everybody keeps saying. Anyone who knows about it fights awfully hard to get it. “What is the Sapphire of Alternia?”

“Don’t you remember the piece the newspaper did about me some time ago? I explained what it was there.” Quantifier says with slight sarcasm.

“Do you expect me to believe that?”

“No.” She says. “And that cuts to the core of the issue. Problem Sleuth, the Sapphire of Alternia is far more... interesting than I or anyone else has led you to believe.”

“How so?” Sleuth asks.

“I will not say.” Wealthy Quantifier refuses. “Frustratingly mysterious, but I’m afraid in this instance it is necessary.”

Sleuth groans. “You’re impossible.”

She smiles. “I know.”

“Alright, so if you don’t want to talk about what it is, then tell me about who killed Murdered Courier and took it. They’re the same person, right?”

“Yes.” Quantifier answers. “They are the same group.”

“Group?”

“Indeed.”

“Are these the same people who robbed you?”

“Indeed, they are.”

“Who are they?”

Wealthy Quantifier waits. “You tell me.”

“If they’re a group, and they’re not the Midnight Crew and the Felt, then they must be hired guns working for somebody. And somebody must know a great deal about you.” Sleuth speculates. “But the Felt and the Midnight Crew don’t know about them, else they would’ve told me.”

“Are you certain? Perhaps they kept their inquiries relevant to what they wanted from you.”

“So you’re telling me I have to go find out what they know?” Sleuth asks. “They told me they’re going to kill me.”

“I’m not telling you to do anything. I do not know if they are even aware of this group’s actions.” Wealthy Quantifier says. “You are currently more aware of them than either the Felt or the Midnight Crew.”

Sleuth pause. “What?”

“I’ll allow you to ponder that question and come to the correct conclusion in the due course of time.” Quantifier says. “Problem Sleuth, it is critical that you find the Sapphire of Alternia and that you return it to me. I can not allow it to fall into the wrong hands, and unfortunately, the only safe ones are mine. The questions I have avoided answering are meant to set you on the path towards the necklace once more.”

Sleuth shrugs with his palms outward. “That’s it? After all this, you’re going to tell me what I already know and not even answer my questions?”

“Hardly! For the trouble I have put you through and the trouble you will face on my behalf I will pay you exorbitantly.”

Sleuth thinks it over. “Four times what you’re paying me now.”

“Ten times.” Quantifier smiles.

“Twenty.” Sleuth counters.

“Ten times.” Quantifier repeats.

“Ten times.” Sleuth agrees.

“Will you return it to me, and me alone?” Quantifier asks.

“Of course.”

“Promise me.”

Sleuth puzzles. “Why do you need a promise? As far as I’m concerned your checks are promise enough on my part.”

“Promise me.” Wealthy Quantifier demands.

Problem Sleuth waits. “I promise.”

“Very good.” Quantifier says. She looks at her cigarette holder, the cigarette slowly burning away. “This was such a terrible idea. I need to leave in a mysterious fashion and I can’t even drop the cigarette in the park. I will just have to carry it out of here, looking like a loon in the process.”

“You haven’t been very helpful.” Sleuth says.

“I disagree completely. I have confirmed facts and I have given you leading questions to their connection and drawn attention to details you have otherwise overlooked. I have done everything I can for you without explicitly telling you what is happening.”

Sleuth shoves his hands in his pockets. “It’s a lot easier if you tell me that though.”

“But I’m paying you exorbitantly. And I’ve given you a challenging case and the opportunity to use all your skills to their fullest.” Quantifier says. “You should be thanking me.”

“I’ll thank you if I make it out of this alive.”

“I fully expect that will happen.” Wealthy Quantifier takes a few steps back. “Goodbye, Problem Sleuth.” She says as she turns around. She walks away deeper into the park.

What a load of crap.

Problem Sleuth glances at Pickle Inspector. His face is full of delight. “What are you so happy about?”

“That was fantastic!” Pickle Inspector says with glee. “Are all your cases this interesting?”

“You skipped the parts where I nearly got beaten to death and went straight to the puzzle shit. No wonder you’ve got that stupid smile on your face.” Sleuth grumbles. He walks down the path towards the car. “Take me back to my apartment. I’ve had enough of mysterious dames to last a lifetime.”

Chapter Text

Problem Sleuth and Pickle Inspector walk to Inspector’s car. He opens the driver side door. “I wonder what the Sapphire of Alternia really is.” Inspector says, grinning at the possibilities.

“It’s probably a stupid boring piece of crap.”

Inspector and Sleuth get in and Inspector starts driving. “Perhaps it is a rare material that can be refined into the fuel that powers the starships of the dead civilization. Wealthy Quantifier must be protecting it so that it will not fall into the wrong hands, who would use it for their own nefarious purposes!”

Sleuth props his head on his hand as Inspector wildly imagines things. “What purposes?” He asks unenthusiastically.

“Perhaps they want to create a death ray, or perhaps a bomb of immense power! They could hold the whole city hostage!” Inspector finishes. “We have to stop them!” He turns eagerly toward Problem Sleuth.

“But if they destroy the city there won’t be anything left. And they wouldn’t get what they wanted anyway.”

Inspector opens his mouth to refute Sleuth’s point but a moment later slumps slightly. “You make an excellent point.” He admits. “Then perhaps the Sapphire of Alternia is a key to an ancient cache of dangerous knowledge that was sealed by the dead civilization to prevent the catastrophic results of its propagation!”

“Dammit, just shut up.”

“And Wealthy Quantifier must protect it so that unwitting knowledge seekers do not loose its secrets!”

The ride to Sleuth’s apartment continues with Pickle Inspector coming up with virtually every potential possibility of what the Sapphire of Alternia could be. It’s a magic necklace that protects its wearer from all harm. It’s a necklace belonging to an ancient cult of undead worshipers that allows entry to its inner circle. It’s a compass that leads the way to a paradise city nestled in a secluded mountain valley. It’s a charm that holds an entity that will grant three cursed wishes. And whatever the possibility, Wealthy Quantifier must be protecting it so that whatever awful thing that makes it dangerous doesn’t happen.

==>

This is why you always tell Pickle Inspector as much information as possible.

It leaves no room to the imagination.

Pickle Inspector pulls up to Sleuth’s apartment. “Then if it isn’t any of those, then it must be the final critical piece to a doomsday robot!”

Problem Sleuth gets out of the car. “Goodnight, Inspector,” He says, ignoring what Inspector’s saying. Inspector drives off, continuing to theorize to himself. Sleuth heads up to the stairs of his apartment. He enters his apartment, goes to his bedroom and flops on his bed.

As he’s about to fall asleep, the phone rings. Sleuth grabs the phone.

“Sleuth!” The other end shouts. “It’s Pickle Inspector. I just got home, and I think I know what the Sapphire of Alternia is!”

Problem Sleuth hangs up.

Problem Sleuth wakes up hours later. He gets out of bed and moves to the kitchen. He sleepily grabs something from the refrigerator and stuffs it in his mouth. He looks down at his clothes. He’s making a pretty bad habit of falling asleep in his clothes.

Problem Sleuth walks to the bathroom.

==>

Is that a five o’clock shadow?

You have no idea what a five o’clock shadow is, but you think all that the dark patch covering the lower half of your face might be it.

Or maybe it’s just dirt and grime. You wipe it off and then take a shower.

Problem Sleuth walks out of the shower and into his bedroom. He opens his small closet.

Problem Sleuth: Pick out clothes.

You have a closet full of your favorite clothing items. Suits, trench coats, clean socks, and multiple pairs of shoes. You have no variety in clothing because you can not imagine wearing anything else besides what you normally do.

In order to be the top problem sleuth in the city, you have to look the part. This is why your closet is stuffed full of redundant clothing. On long investigations like the one you’re on, it pays to look like you’re ready to fill some surly thugs full of new keyholes, even if you don’t get the chance to do laundry. That way, you can always look ready to give a mean right hook instead of looking like you’ve taken several already.

Your allies have learned this the hard way and they’re finally starting to catch on.

==>

You throw a fresh suit and coat onto your bed and then look for your wait a second where’s your BACKUP HAT dammit you can’t find it it’s not in your closet anywhere.

Fortunately your candy corn is stashed safely in your normal hat oh dammit that’s missing too.

Today’s goi-

Problem Sleuth’s internal monologue is interrupted by the phone ringing. He walks towards it and picks it up.

“Sleuth, it’s Repressor.” The man on the other end greets.

“Just the man I wanted to talk to.”

“Really?”

“No.”

“I figured.” Repressor says. “Just a heads up: Sleuth, I had to let the fanghounds off their leashes this morning. There’s a warrant out for your arrest. If you see any cops, they’ll throw your ass in the slammer.”

Sleuth puts his hand on his hip. “I thought I had a week.” He protests.

“I’m sorry, Sleuth. I told you a week, maybe less. I’ve got a lot of pressure from on high and from the men in my unit. They want this case closed. I can’t stall them any longer.”

“I thought you were gonna stick up for me. Give me time while you tried to pin me for a murder you asked me to look into.” Sleuth says annoyed.

Sleuth can tell Repressor is shrugging on the other end. “I did. I gave you as much time as I could.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“This is me sticking up for you, Sleuth. I could lose my job for this. I know you didn’t kill that man, but if anybody can find out who did it’s going to be you.”

Sleuth sighs. “Thanks for the heads up, Repressor. It’s always a pleasure working with the thin blue line.”

“That’s not all, Sleuth.” He says. “Cops are headed to your apartment and office. I’d get out of there if I were you, and damn quick.”

Sleuth glances at his clothes. “Alright. I’ll call you if I find anything.”

“And, Sleuth,” Repressor says. “Don’t beat up too many cops. It looks bad for the force if everybody’s got a black eye because of you.” He says as he hangs up.

Sleuth starts throwing on clothes. Fresh suit, fresh coat, dirty hat. Everything in the dirty coat into the fresh one. And he’s out the door. As he closes it he listens. Two cops are chatting to each other as they walk up the stairs to the corridor. He walks down the opposite way and turns a corner. He peers around, keeping himself hid.

“Is this the place?” One cop asks the other as they get to Sleuth’s door.

“Yeah, should be. Anarchy Repressor said the door’s always unlocked.” The other responds. The bastard told them that? Bastard. Never a favor again.

“Who does that? Doesn’t he know that’s not safe?”

“Hey, this guy carries enough firepower to give the Felt and the Midnight Crew trouble.” One cop says. “Let’s try to remember that here.”

They open the door with their guns drawn. They enter in, searching the place. Sleuth takes the opportunity and walks quickly past his door to his staircase.

“There he is!”

Problem Sleuth breaks into a run. Dammit, just what he needs, to get chased by the police. Because then they call backup and pretty soon the whole place is crawling with them and they can look in every building and make perimeters and generally make escaping their notice difficult.

Problem Sleuth descends the stairs rapidly, pushing aside somebody trying to get down. “Freeze!” One of the cops shouts. Problem Sleuth keeps running. A bullet lands on the floor beside him.

And then they’re trying to shoot him!

Problem Sleuth runs out the door, past the parked cop car, and dashes across the street, dodging the morning rush hour traffic. He slides over the hood of a stopped car and ducks into an alley. The cops yell behind him. He runs into the maze of alleys and turns several corners. He’s greeted by a dead end. He looks around for an exit, but finds none. He peers around the corner leading out of the trap he led himself into.

One cop is running after him with his gun drawn. His partner must be calling for backup at the car. Problem Sleuth hides behind the corner and waits for his opportunity.

Problem Sleuth: Convince the cop to stop following you.

You use Sleuth Diplomacy Lv. 6: OPEN NEGOTIATIONS.

You maneuver him into a weak negotiating position by bringing his face and your fist together into mutual accord.

The city’s finest have glass jaws, looks like. It only took one punch.

Problem Sleuth shoves his hands in his coat pocket and searches for the exit to the maze of alleys. He finds one that leads him away from the cop car. Problem Sleuth starts walking down the street with his head down.

Now that he’s got some breathing room it’s time to think about what to do. Problem Sleuth can’t help but think about what Wealthy Quantifier said. Somebody killed the courier, took the Sapphire of Alternia, and robbed Quantifier’s house. And it’s not the usual suspects. If it’s not them, then who? Quantifier said Sleuth knew more about them than either the Midnight Crew or the Felt. If that’s true, then he has the advantage on both of them in finding out where it is. The problem is, he can’t for the life of him think of whatever detail is supposed to make it clear who took it. Wealthy Quantifier should really work on being so damn mysterious all the time. It’s an incredibly annoying habit.

Somebody has to have noticed this other party around. Sleuth thinks about who might know that, but more who’s willing to even talk to him right now. He can’t go to the police, because they’re trying to arrest him. The Felt are starting a gang war for the Sapphire of Alternia so they probably won’t be too receptive to outreaches by Problem Sleuth.

The Midnight Crew knows less than the Felt right now. Spades Slick told Problem Sleuth he’d gut him and let all his blood and innards run into a storm drain if he looked any more into the murder or what the Felt were getting into. Not in so many words, of course, but the message was clear. Although, threats like that are just a formality, really. Kind of like Spades Slick’s way of saying hello. If Problem Sleuth has information, they’ll be willing to take it, and might even be willing to exchange information for it. It’s not ideal. But it’s the only thing Problem Sleuth can think of. He starts making his way towards the Midnight Crew’s hideout.

It’s not too far a walk from Problem Sleuth’s apartment. After about an hour of walking he reaches the entrance to the hideout. It’s a manhole cover tucked in an alley. It would be suicide to go down that way. The Midnight Crew would kill him if they found out he knew where their hideout was. They have their suspicions, of course, but they hang out enough at the bar that connects to their secret hideout that Problem Sleuth avoids getting a bullet in the back of his neck for coming here.

He looks at the bar. Dingy little place in the middle of a bad neighborhood. Diamonds Droog doesn’t let anything the Midnight Crew runs look ugly if he can help it. So the appearance is deliberate. It keeps people away. Problem Sleuth opens the door and heads inside.

The bartender gives him a dirty look, as does Hearts Boxcars sitting at the bar. Diamonds Droog doesn’t look up from his paper from his booth, but does put a card on the table. Clubs Deuce is walking between the two, asking inane questions and generally annoying them both.

Boxcars stands up from his stool and walks right up to Sleuth. Problem Sleuth cranes his neck looking at the man towering above him. “WHADDAYA WANT SLEUTH” Boxcars says with a deep growl.

“To talk to you, big guy.” Sleuth says. “I’ve got a problem. With a girl.”

Boxcars’ face lightens up to an almost-smile. “WELL WHY DIDNT YA JUST SAY SO” Boxcars grabs Sleuth by the collar and sits him on a stool. Boxcars sits next to him and looks him eagerly in the eye. “WHATS ON YER MIND SLEUTH”

Droog sighs heavily.

“So, there’s this girl. You might know her. She’s part of the gang who tried to shoot all of us yesterday.” Sleuth says, watching Boxcars almost-smile turn to the familiar scowl. “And I know what she’s looking for.”

Droog’s paper lowers slightly. Deuce stops pacing in his tracks. “Deuce,” Droog says. “Get Slick.”

“BUT HE SAID HE WAS SLEEPING IN AND IF ANYBODY TRIED TO WAKE HIM UP HE’D STICK A KNIFE IN THEIR GULLET.” Deuce protests.

“Exactly why I’m sending you.” Droog says. Deuce frowns and heads to the back of the bar. “He’ll miss you if you duck.” Droog says as Deuce heads through the door.

“I CANT BELIEVE YA DID THIS TO ME SLEUTH” Boxcars shakes his head. “IF YA EVER WANNA TALK GIRL TROUBLE FER REAL ILL BE THERE FOR YA” Boxcars says. He gets off the stool and sits across from Droog in the booth.

“Thanks, Boxcars.” Sleuth says.

The door to the back of the bar slams open. Spades Slick is rubbing his eyes. He’s not wearing his hat or a shirt under his coat. He walks over to Droog. “what did you send that little moron to wake me up for”

“Did you kill him?” Droog asks, not looking up from his paper.

“no” Slick says. “the bastard ducked”

Droog points to Problem Sleuth. “Blame him.”

Sleuth gives an eager smile, points a finger Slick, and clicks his mouth. “Up bright and early, aren’t ya?”

Slick growls. “coffee” He barks to the bartender. Slick takes a seat at the bar next to Sleuth. “what the fuck do you want”

“You any closer to finding out what the Felt are looking for?”

The bartender gives Slick a scalding hot cup of black coffee. “do you think id be sitting here nursing a hangover and talking to you if i was”

“Guess not.” Sleuth chuckles. “You’re lucky. Because I am.” Sleuth says with sudden seriousness. “I know exactly what they’re looking for.”

The attention in the bar turns to Problem Sleuth. Slick glares at Sleuth. “so are you gonna tell me or not” Slick says. “dont make me cut it out of you”

“This isn’t a gift.” Sleuth says. “For what the Felt are looking for, I want something of my own.”

Slick takes a sip from his coffee. “what”

“You know I’m a wanted man for murder. I bet you’ve got a hand in that somehow.” Sleuth says. Slick grunts. “I want everything you know about who killed the courier. I need to clear my name.”

Slick puts his coffee on the bar. “im not really in a trading mood right now” Slick says. “tie him up and throw him somewhere” He says to Droog and Boxcars.

“A word with you, Slick.” Droog says, standing up from his seat and walking over to Slick. Sleuth can’t figure out exactly what they’re saying through their whispers but he has a pretty good idea. Slick, we’re not interested in the courier anymore, so that’s information we can trade away. So what? I want to watch this fucker bleed for waking me up. I know. But it’s a good trade. We both we get what we want and we don’t have to dump a body somewhere. Goddammit, I hate it when you’re right, because you’re always right. I could still go for dumping some bodies. That would cheer me up. We can do that later. We’ve got some of the Felt’s bookies we can deal with.

Droog walks back to his booth. Slick turns on his stool and faces Sleuth. “alright” He says. “you first” Slick takes a sip from his coffee.

“The Felt are looking for the Sapphire of Alternia.”

Slick tips too much coffee into his mouth and starts swearing. “fuck give a guy some warning before you tell me theyre looking for that” Slick shouts. “i nearly burnt my fucking tongue off dammit”

That never gets old. Maybe when Sleuth knows what it is he’ll start understanding why everybody gets so surprised about it.

Droog stands up and walks next to Slick. “How do you know?” He asks Sleuth.

“I heard it from Crowbar himself.”

“do they have it yet” Slick says. “tell me those miserable green motherfuckers dont have it yet”

“By nightfall yesterday, no.”

“deuce boxcars get ready were leaving soon” Slick barks. “droog handle sleuth would you i need to get dressed” Boxcars and Deuce spring into activity behind him. Boxcars throws his Wrathtub on the bar floor and starts rummaging through its contents.

Slick walks to the back of the bar. Droog nods to Slick, turns to face Sleuth and folds his arms. “When did they start looking?” Droog asks.

“Wealthy Quantifier got robbed, did you hear? Crowbar told me Snowman ordered them to start looking for the Sapphire of Alternia as soon as she knew.”

Droog’s eyes narrow. “What are they talking to you for?” Droog asks.

Sleuth shrugs. “For some reason they thought I knew where it was.” Sleuth takes off his hat and points to the gashes on his head. “This is what I got for telling the truth. Crowbar’s crowbar. Ever been on the business end of it? He has a way of prying secrets from people with it.”

Droog glowers. "There's something you're not telling me."

“This was a trade, remember? I need to clear my name. What do you know about who killed the courier?”

Droog stays silent for a moment. “We don’t know anything.”

Sleuth slumps. “Come on. You’re Diamonds Droog. You’ve got a web of informants covering half the city. There isn’t a thing that goes on this town that you don’t find out. You have to know something, anything. Anything even slightly out of the ordinary at all. I’m starved for leads here.”

“Sorry. We don’t know anything.” Droog unfolds his arms and starts walking away. He stops, and then looks over his shoulder. “You know what your colleagues are up to?”

“You mean Dick and Inspector?”

“No, the ones you hate.”

“You mean my competitors.” Sleuth says. “I don’t keep tabs on those amateurs.”

“I hear they’re making themselves unavailable and working on something together.”

Sleuth raises a brow. “That’s not so unusual.”

“That’s what I thought. But they’re missing all at the same time?” Droog asks rhetorically. “No, something’s up. I don’t know why I told you this just now. It only crossed my mind when you asked.” Droog says. “Now get out of here. We’re about to get to work.” Droog chillily says.

Problem Sleuth hops off the stool. “Tell Slick I said thanks.” He says as he walks out the door. Problem Sleuth shoves his hands in his pockets and waits outside for a moment. The Midnight Cruiser jumps out of the alley next to the bar and screeches onto the street. Spades Slick leans out the window shouting profanities at traffic. Didn’t that thing get shot up? Maybe they had another somewhere.

As Sleuth’s eye follows the Crew’s car down the street, he catches sight of something. A man in a car staring at him.

Problem Sleuth: Talk things over.

Oh, you’ll talk things over with him.

You’ve got the key to a perfect discussion right here.

Chapter Text

Problem Sleuth walks across the street and heads toward the car, pretending he hasn’t noticed his tail. His hands are stuck in his coat pocket, gripped tightly around his key.

He whips out his gun and ducks into the window and levels the key at the man in the car. “I don’t care who you are but you better...” Problem Sleuth trails off. The man inside has short legs and a round torso. He’s got a handful of candy corn ready to be tossed into his gaping mouth and he’s got Sleuth’s style in hats.

He eats the handful of candy corn all at once. “Hey, Problem Sleuth.” The man says between chews.

“Ace Dick?” Sleuth asks as he lowers his key. “What the hell are you doing?”

“I’m following you.” Ace Dick says. He puts more candy corn in his mouth.

Sleuth picks up his jaw and unscrunches his brow. “But what are you doing that for?”

“Because I was told to.”

Sleuth’s hand hits his forehead. “But why were you told to?”

“I don’t know.” Ace Dick swallows.

“Weren’t you at all curious about why you were following me?”

“No.” Dick says completely honest. He reaches for more candy corn.

Sleuth swats his hand. “Stop it, you fat bastard.” Sleuth snaps.

“What?” Dick asks indignantly. “It’s my candy corn.”

Sleuth points a finger. “No it isn’t. That’s my candy corn. You stole it from my office a couple of days ago and I knew it was you.” Sleuth says. “Is that why you haven’t been answering my calls? Because you knew I knew you took my candy corn?”

“Shut up, Sleuth.” Ace Dick says. He glares at Sleuth as he defiantly reaches for more candy corn in a deliberate motion.

Sleuth curls his hand into a shaking fist.

==>

You really hate Ace Dick sometimes.

Sleuth sighs in exasperation. “If you haven’t been avoiding my calls because you took my candy corn then what have you been doing?”

“Oh! That.” Dick says loudly, chewing some more. “I’ve been working. And my phone’s broken anyway.”

Sleuth gasps and grumbles inaudibly about the stupid fat short bastard. “What’s this work you’re doing?”

Ace Dick motions for Sleuth to get in the car. Sleuth steps in and sits down. “I’ve been working with a bunch of private detectives. It’s a real tight operation.”

“Doing what?”

“The usual. Following people. Keeping tabs on the gangs. Doing stakeouts.” Dick says. “Normal private detective stuff. I think some of it’s probably busy work to keep us guessing about what we’re actually doing.”

“So what are you actually doing?”

“Beats me. I’m not one of the ones asking questions.”

“Dammit, would it kill you to have a little curiosity, Dick?” Sleuth asks.

“Look at the trouble you get into because of your curiosity. No thanks.” Dick says, grabbing more candy corn. “Besides, I’m getting paid to not ask questions.”

“Oh.” Sleuth says with a disapproving edge. “So the perfect job for you?”

“Exactly what I thought.” Dick says with a smug smile on his face.

Figures. The short fat unimaginative dullard gets the job of his dreams at the same time Sleuth gets his. “When did you start working this new job?”

“About a week ago. I got a call from somebody who didn’t tell me their name and said there was a lot of money for me if I did some work. So long as there were no questions asked.” Dick emphasizes the last few words. “He was very adamant about that.”

“And you said yes.”

“Of course I said yes.” Dick says with a smug grin. “Why wouldn’t I?”

Sleuth furrows his brow and rubs it. “Because you were obviously getting roped into something incredibly shady.”

“But I don’t have a problem with that.”

“If you knew what you were getting into you would.” Sleuth says. He sighs. “When did you start following me?”

“Sometime yesterday in the late afternoon.”

Late afternoon.

“Well, that’s when the guy in charge asked us to follow you. I didn’t find you until this morning when you left your apartment. You gave those cops the slip. Impressive work, Sleuth.” Dick says.

“Why you?”

“I volunteered.” Dick says. “You’re my friend and I know how you work.”

Sleuth frowns. “You’re a jackass, Dick.”

“Shove it, Sleuth.”

Sleuth rubs his chin. “Where can I find this guy in charge?”

“Hell if I know.” Dick responds. “There’s a place we go to check in every once in a while. That’s where the guy in charge calls. There’s some smug piece of crap who likes to think he’s the second in command. He spends most of his time at the place.”

An idea crosses Sleuth’s mind. “I could use a ride, Dick. I’ve got this place I want to visit.”

“I’m on the clock, Sleuth. I can’t make social trips in the middle of the day.”

“Like you care.”

Dick smiles. “Good point.” Dick turns the car on and starts driving. He pulls out of his parking spot and merges into traffic. He takes a quick right and changes lanes. “What have you been getting yourself into lately, Sleuth?”

“If I tell you I need you to keep this quiet. This is just between you and me.”

==>

You always tell Ace Dick exactly what to do. If you don’t tell him to be discrete he won’t be.

Dick nods.

“I’m looking for the Sapphire of Alternia for Wealthy Quantifier.”

“That’s interesting.” Ace Dick says but means the opposite.

Sleuth turns to Dick. “Interesting? That’s it? I tell you I’m looking for the most expensive hunk of rock on this planet and all you can say is that it’s interesting?”

“What do you want me to say?”

Sleuth faces forward. He doesn’t really know. “At least you can pretend to be interested.”

“That’s what I was doing!” Dick says. “I don’t get you sometimes, Sleuth.”

“Just shut up for a second.” Sleuth says. “The Midnight Crew and the Felt are looking for it too. I think your group of detectives is involved in all this too.”

Dick doesn’t say anything.

“I could use your help on this one.”

“Sure, anything you need.” Dick says.

Sleuth ponders if Dick is just humoring him. “You mean that?”

“Of course I do.” Dick says. “After you helped me with Mobster Kingpin I’d do anything for you, pal.”

Sleuth grips his key. Dammit, it’s just so tempting. But he obviously means well even if he is a self important jackass. “Thanks, Dick.”

The rest of the car ride is spent wordless between the two. Dick drives from the Midnight Crew’s hideout to a neighborhood full of buildings that have obviously seen better days. There's currently a land grab by real estate developers who were hoping to turn a profit by destroying old buildings and replacing them with new offices and apartments, and in turn new wealth.

In the meantime, the neighborhood harbors squatters, drifters, grifters, and an assortment of other petty criminals and transients. The prevalence of abandoned buildings make it a simple matter to hide and distribute illicit substances, something the Felt and the Midnight Crew take advantage of frequently. The two major gangs are at odds with each other because of it.

“Are we close?” Sleuth asks.

Dick nods.

“Why are a bunch of private detectives making a base out here?”

Dick shrugs.

Sleuth opens his mouth to ask another question but remembers how pointless it would be. “When you’re a couple blocks away drop me off.” Sleuth says.

“Alright.” Dick says.

Sleuth glares. “And because you didn’t ask what for I’m going to tell you. I need you to keep working with your detectives, as a sort of inside man.” Sleuth says. “Can’t have your friends noticing you dropping me off at their headquarters.”

Dick lets the comment pass as he continues driving. “Hide your face for a little bit.” Dick says.

Sleuth complies by turning his hat down.

“On your right.” Dick points out. “We’re passing it right now.”

Sleuth takes note of the building. It’s an abandoned office building with a boarded up storefront. At some point it was Honest Shopowner’s General Store, but the sign says H ne t Sh powne s Ge era Sto e.

Dick turns a corner and drives for a few blocks. He pulls over. “Here you are, Sleuth.”
Sleuth opens the door and gets out. “Now remember, I completely gave you the slip right now.”

“Don’t tell me how to do my job.” Dick shouts as he drives off.

Sleuth watches the car drive away, gripping his key the whole time. Damn, it’s so tempting. Sleuth turns around and walks down the street towards the abandoned office.

Late afternoon, Sleuth thinks. What did Sleuth do yesterday that got him followed by his former rival? He got shook down by the Felt and the Midnight Crew on a couple different occasions, so maybe Dick’s group of detectives figured Sleuth was on the case because of it.

Or, it could be something else. Sleuth doesn’t want to believe that could happen. But he’s got his suspicions.

Sleuth turns the corner and winds up in front of the store. If these private detectives are any good they’ve already spotted Problem Sleuth.

Problem Sleuth: Make a stealthy entrance.

You’re not really sure that’s necessary, but for the sake of caution, you enter the storefront as quietly as you can.

If what Diamonds Droog says about them is true, that these are your competitors instead of colleagues, you don’t think you have much to worry about.

Sleuth holds his key out of his coat with his left hand wrapped around his key ring. He’d like to put a few holes in these guys, but if he gives Anarchy Repressor an actual murder charge to pin on him he might as well stop trying to prove his innocence.

The door swings silently open. Inside are dusty shelves, racks and counters. Behind the counter are a bunch of dirty blankets making a rough mattress. The detectives probably don’t sleep there, with the money Dick says they’re making.

Sleuth hears voices coming from the back. He silently hides behind a counter. Two detectives, obviously ripping off Sleuth’s style, walk through the store oblivious to Sleuth’s presence.

“I don’t know why we bother looking for her.” One detective says to the other.

“Quit whining about it. We both know she can’t be found if she doesn’t want to be, so will you just stop complaining and take your money?” The other says as they walk outside.

Sleuth stands up and heads towards the back of the store. There’s a small storage room, empty save for garbage, and a small staircase leading to the second floor. Sleuth moves to the staircase, listens for a moment, then makes his way up.

Sleuth doesn’t immediately hear anything on the second floor. It either means the building’s empty or he’s walking into a trap. He walks down the corridor to the first door. He throws it open silently, key and keyring at the ready. He peers through the open door.

There’s a broken office chair and some stripped carpeting. He takes a step inside, looking around. There’s nothing in here. Sleuth heads out.

He performs a similar procedure for the second and third offices on the floor. He opens the door to the fourth and quietly enters when he hears a phone ring from the floor above him. Somebody above him stomps around to the phone. Sleuth hears the muffled sounds of one-sided conversation.

Sleuth peeks into the corridor. He quietly makes his way back to the stairs. He ducks back into a room as a trio of detectives march up towards the third floor.

“You ever been to the Crew’s casino? Place is a palace.”

“Can you really get everything you ask for there?”

“Sure can. Last week, I got-”

“Shut up, you loner. Nobody wants to hear about that.”

“That’s not even what I was talking about.”

Sleuth heads back to the fourth office. By their footstomps the trio head to the room above and talk to the man in the room. Sleuth hears muffled shouting and muffled excuses and muffled ripping new ones. Dick was right. There is a guy who fancies himself second in command. The trio start walking away, most likely with some new assignment.

Sleuth waits for the trio to descend the stairs. After he can’t hear their complaining about confusing jobs, Sleuth makes his way up. The third floor has the same setup as the second, but Sleuth knows which room he needs to go to.

Sleuth walks to the fourth office. He looks through the dirty frosted glass of the door. He can see the man, but not where he’s looking. The problem is that the man can say the same for Sleuth. And in this case, the advantage goes to the person who isn’t trying to sneak around.

The man starts walking to the door. Sleuth opens the door across from the fourth office and hides inside the room. The man opens the door. “Hey, come on. You shy or something?” The man asks.

There are several seconds of silence.

“I know you’re out there, so come on. Just come out with your hands up. I promise you you won’t get hurt.”

Sleuth silently refuses the offer. There are several more seconds of silence.

==>

Whoever this guy is, he either doesn’t like shy private detectives, or he thinks somebody is trying to sneak in.

Because he’s firing hot lead through the office walls.

Problem Sleuth: Lie prone against the wall.

Like you need to be told to do that!

Problem Sleuth pulls his key ring out of his coat. He pushes himself away from the wall with his legs and fires a short burst from his tommy gun through the wall. That quiets the man down for a bit.

Except he comes back louder than ever. Sleuth is going to end up with a bullet through several organs if he keeps it up.

==>

If only you had a corpse to throw through the door. Besides yours, of course.

It seems you have only one option left.

Problem Sleuth: SEPULCHRITUDE!

What? No. That’s stupid.

“Alright, alright. You got me.” Sleuth shouts, bluffing panic. “I give up. I don’t wanna die.”

“Your guns.” The man shouts. “On the floor where I can see them.”

Sleuth puts his key and keyring on the floor just inside the open door, in plain view from the opposite room.

A moment passes. “What the hell is this? I said your guns, not your keys.”

“Those are my guns.” Sleuth says.

A moment passes. “But those were keys a second ago and now they’re guns.”

“Are you an idiot? That’s a pile of keys, not guns.”

“What the hell is going on?”

“Are you sure that’s a gun in your hand?” Sleuth asks.

Unidentified Man: Look at gun/key.

It appears that your gun/key, upon very close inspection, is, in fact, a gun. You find the notion that it could have been anything else besides a gun oh dammit.

The guy across the hall has his keys pointed right at you.

“Put it down if you don’t want to walk around for the rest of your life a foot shorter.” Sleuth says lying on his side with both hands around his tommy gun.

The black carapace is wearing a trench coat and tie. He probably has his hat somewhere else. He looks at his gun, confused.

“I said put it down.” Sleuth repeats.

The man slowly rests his tommy gun on the ground. Sleuth stands up, keeping his own gun trained on the man at all times. He walks across the hall and kicks the tommy gun away. He searches through the man’s coat and tosses away all his other armaments.

“What’s your name?” Sleuth asks in a demanding tone.

The detective ringleader starts to speak.

“Actually, I don’t care.” Sleuth says. “Who do you work for?”

“I don’t know.” Detective Ringleader, for lack of his actual name, says.

“Don’t give me that. You got a phone right there and you’re barking orders to a bunch of for-hire second-rate private eyes. You’re not pulling them out of your ass so they must be coming from somewhere.”

“I don’t know his name.” Ringleader says.

“You better start giving me answers before I start losing my patience.” Sleuth says.

“Okay, okay.” The man throws his hands up in a placating gesture.

“You’re not working for free so you must’ve met him at some point.”

“Yeah, I did. He’s a tall guy, white carapace. Covered up an expensive suit and his face with a giant trench coat. Told me to work for him, here’s a thousand dollars, said to keep quiet. Is that good enough for you?”

“What are you working on?”

The man looks up at the ceiling. “I give out all the orders and I don’t even know.”

Sleuth taps Ringleader in the gut with his gun.

“Look, there’s about twenty of us, and we’re all being worked to death. The guy calls constantly to get updates on our progress. A lot of it seems pointless, and even contradictory sometimes.”

“Has your group been to Wealthy Quantifier’s house?”

Ringleader starts. “I don’t get it. We get sent there, told to pack up a bunch of valuable stuff, and then we stash it somewhere.”

That’s weird. Something odd’s definitely going on with this group. “And did you ever deal with a courier?”

“Yeah.” Ringleader looks down, regret on his face.

“Where’s what you took from the poor guy?” Sleuth asks.

“It’s in a warehouse with the rest of Wealthy Quantifier’s stuff on the other side of town.”

Sleuth doesn’t have a chance of getting there in time even if he calls his racecab driver. Even if he does, the men there will know he's coming. He’ll have to use a different tactic to get to the Sapphire of Alternia. Sleuth points with his keys to the phone. “Call him.”

Detective Ringleader hesitates. “We don’t call him. He calls us.”

“It’s an emergency. There’s some real pressing information he needs to know.” Sleuth points his gun at him. “You’ve got a gun to your head. You think you can come up with a good reason?”

The man frowns and moves to the phone. He dials the number and hands Sleuth the receiver. “It’s your show now.”

Sleuth takes it and puts it to his ear. After the fourth ring, the phone gets answered.

“Hello?” The other end asks. “Tell me it’s you. Is the box ready to be moved yet?”

Sleuth hangs up.

It was Litigious Lawyer.

==>

You’re gonna have a lot of questions for him.

Like why he stole the Sapphire of Alternia, killed a courier, robbed Wealthy Quantifier, and had you followed after you paid him a visit.

You better get to him soon, since Mr. Pretend Detective here is going to let him know as soon as you leave.

Problem Sleuth: Call Transportation Deferrer.

You dial the number to your favorite cab service. She picks up in the middle of the first ring. You tell her you need a ride somewhere quick. She says that she’s your girl in a manner suggesting she’s willing to do more than simply take you from two different locations in the city. Actually, you’re surprised. She doesn’t say that suggestively at all. You just kinda figured.

You ask her if she was waiting for your call. She says that the two of you’ve been through this. She always knows when you need a ride.

That’s great, you say. You tell her where you are and tell her to get there quick. She says will do and hangs up and so do you.

“This box.” Sleuth says. “You know what’s inside?”

“No.” Detective Ringleader says.

“If you know what’s good for you, keep it that way.” Sleuth says. He shoves his keyring back in his coat pocket. He leaves Ringleader in the room. As soon as Sleuth is gone he starts dialing a number.

Sleuth starts heading down the stairs. Some private detectives come up the opposite way. “Don’t worry about it. He got him.” Sleuth says.

“What are you talking about?” One of them asks.

“I heard the shooting too. There’s a guy dead in there.” Sleuth responds, marching past the detectives.

“Dead?” One of them asks. “This isn’t how things are supposed to go.”

“Ask him.” Sleuth says, pointing backwards with his thumb. “The guy came in here with a gun, or something. I don’t know. He seemed shocked about it. I would be too.” Sleuth says, starting the descent to the first floor.

“Come on.” One detective says to the other, moving up the stairs.

Problem Sleuth hustles his way out of the building. He opens the door to find a cab screeching to a stop on the curb. Sleuth opens the door and sits in the backseat.

“Hey, Sleuth.” Transportation Deferrer says. She seems a bit more reserved today.

“Keynote Bank. And step on it.”

Deferrer gives a half-hearted giggle. Sleuth is pinned to the back seat from the sudden acceleration.

Chapter Text

Problem Sleuth grips the seat as Transportation Deferrer’s cab weaves in and around traffic. Some of it oncoming. In between holding on for dear life he catches Deferrer glancing at him through the rearview mirror but avoiding eye contact. She seems nervous about something. Sleuth wonders what she’s thinking.

Problem Sleuth: Be Transportation Deferrer.

You are now Transportation Deferrer.

You are driving your favorite regular to Keynote Bank on some SUPER IMPORTANT CASE he’s working on. Something about THE SAPPHIRE OF ALTERNIA. You figured that much out. But you’re not interested in helping him out beyond driving him around town, seeing as how he’s been getting himself into so much trouble recently.

Less than five minutes ago, you got a sudden premonition that Problem Sleuth would need a ride very soon. You knew this because of your cabsense, which is a skill you have developed over your many years of cab driving. You are so attuned to your cab and the road that you are able to both arrive at your garage just as you are getting a call you knew you would get and pick up your client almost immediately after.

Speaking of your client, you’re a bit nervous right now because of the recent argument you had in his apartment with that stupid mail hussy who is less pretty and less shiny and less funny than you and you don’t know what Sleuth sees in her if he sees anything at all although come on what does a girl have to do to get a guy’s attention dress up in a ridiculous mailman’s uniform and prance around like a cheery dope all the time?

Apparently all you have to do is be exactly like him but female. And wear a bodice. If only you had thought of that sooner.

Ugh, men are all the same.

But you’re getting off track here. You made a fool of yourself, you should apologize.

“Deferrer.” Sleuth says for the third time. Apparently she’s stuck in her own world right now, which wouldn’t be a problem if she wasn’t tearing through crowded traffic at top speed. “Deferrer!”

Her eyes snap to the rearview mirror. “Yeah, Sleuth?”

“Is something wrong?”

“No.” She says a little too quickly. “What makes you say that?”

“You’re not acting like yourself.”

“Okay, you’re right.” Deferrer says. “I need to talk to you. About last night.”

Sleuth looks upward and scrunches his face in thought. Last night? Got beat up by the Felt, looked over Murdered Courier’s evidence, went to see Wealthy Quantifier, Inspector wouldn’t shut up about the Sapphire of Alternia. What else?

“Unbelievable!” Deferrer huffs. “You don’t remember, do you?”

“Remember wha-” Sleuth pauses. “Oh, that’s what you’re talking about.”

“I thought we were friends, Sleuth.” Deferrer complains. “When I make an ass of myself in front of you I thought you’d have the decency to remember.”

Suddenly Sleuth remembers that he wasn’t looking forward to this conversation. “I’m juggling around a lot of details right now. Any other time when I’m not racing everybody and their vatneighbor for some necklace and it’d be all I could think about today.” Sleuth says.

“I’m sorry I’m not an important enough detail compared to your mobster friends and diamond necklaces and former monarchs.” Deferrer rolls her eyes.

“Stop it right now.” Sleuths says commandingly. “If there’s something you want to get off your mind, you say it, but don’t turn this around on me. I didn’t do anything wrong. Now,” Sleuth takes a breath and exhales. “What’s the matter?”

Deferrer looks into the mirror a few times and takes a gulp. “I,” She starts slowly. “I wanted to apologize about the way I acted at your apartment yesterday. I said a lot of things I probably shouldn’t have.” Deferrer says. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Sleuth says, returning to a relaxed posture. As relaxed as he can get anyway. “It’s alright.”

“I mean, I know you’re with Dame so there’s no reason I should be fighting with somebody else abou-“

“Relax, it’s no big deal. Just forget it ever happened.” Sleuth interjects. A slow smirk creeps across Sleuth’s lips. “I know I have.” He says with the biggest smirk he can manage.

Deferrer gives an annoyed sigh. “You’re an ass, Sleuth.” She says with a slight smile. “I should throw you out of my cab right now. Who needs a customer who can’t graciously accept an apology anyway?”

“One who tips as good as I do.” Sleuth says, keeping up his smirk.

Deferrer shrugs. “Alright, I guess I’ll keep you around then.” She starts shaking her finger at the rearview mirror. “But next time, you better be groveling at my feet to accept my apology or we’re through, Sleuth.” She says with a cutting motion.

“Hold on a second, I don’t grovel before anybody.” Sleuth says, but he catches Deferrer’s glare through the mirror. “But I’ll make one exception.”

“Good.”

A moment passes between the two of them that’s filled with the sounds of tires squealing and honking car horns. Sleuth thinks he hears Deferrer sniffle. He wonders if he handled that right. If he didn’t, well, she’ll get over it. If not now, then later.

Deferrer pulls over across the street from Keynote Bank. Sleuth gets out of the cab. He ducks back in through a window as he hands Deferrer the fare with a larger than usual tip.

“What’d you need me to get here so quick for?” She asks.

“I need to see somebody before they start hiding.”

Deferrer raises a brow. “But only businessmen and secretaries work down here.”

“That’s what I thought too.” Sleuth says.

Deferrer gives him a quizzical look. He pulls his head out of the window and starts walking around the car towards Keynote Bank. Deferrer looks at him for a moment before shrugging and peeling off. Sleuth crosses the street and strides purposefully into the building. He walks through the atrium towards the elevator.

The receptionist looks up from the desk. “It’s you! I didn’t think you’d actually come back. For real, I mean.”

“When a pretty gal says I should stop by again I listen up.” Sleuth says as he walks straight past the receptionist’s desk.

“But,” She stammers.

Sleuth ignores her. He signals the elevator.

The receptionist finally figures out what she wants to say. “You can’t go up there!” She protests as she starts disentangling herself from her desk.

The elevator door opens and a few suits and skirts exit. Sleuth steps inside. “You again?” The elevator operator asks.

“Same place I was yesterday.”

The receptionist reaches the elevator as the doors are closing. “He can’t go up there!” She says to the operator as she moves her head to keep eye contact.

The operator reaches for the open door button. Sleuth catches his wrist. The doors slide shut.

“Let go of me.” The operator says evenly.

“Listen.” Sleuth says, looking the operator straight in the eye. “I got an old friend who’s getting into some trouble he shouldn’t and I need to talk to him.” He says as he holds the operator’s wrist increasingly firmly. “Take me to the top floor.”

“No, you listen.” The operator says. “This is my elevator. You let me go and you get the hell out right now.”

Sleuth stares at the operator for a second. “I don’t make a habit of hurting people who don’t deserve it but this elevator is going to the top floor.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“Yes.” Sleuth answers simply.

“Go to hell.” The operator throws a sudden punch.

Sleuth ducks, the punch knocking off his hat. Sleuth gives the operator a right uppercut and then a left hook. The operator staggers to the back wall and Sleuth knocks him out with a right jab to his eye. The operator slumps down the wall and to the floor.

Sleuth picks up his hat, pushes out the dent, and returns it to his head. He looks at the elevator control. He hovers his hand over a lever before pushing it forward. The elevator starts rising.

Sleuth watches the floors tick by. He doesn’t know what he’s going to say to Litigious Lawyer. He’s one of Sleuth’s oldest friends. He hasn’t talked to him in a while. Wandering the wastelands separated everybody from anyone they knew. And he and Lawyer chose different paths once they arrived in the city.

Sleuth isn’t sure what he’s feeling. Maybe it’s disappointment. Sleuth expected better from his friend. He was always a stickler for rules and regulations and conduct, for all the good that did them when they fought together. It just doesn’t seem like something he would do to gather a crew of hired guns and steal from somebody he called queen. Maybe he didn’t know Litigious Lawyer as well as he thought he did.

Sleuth eases the elevator to the top floor and it dings. Sleuth sighs and readies himself. He opens the doors and steps outside.

==>

It’s still an amazing view.

But you don’t have time to gawk.

Sleuth strides down the corridor. Wallstreet Keynoter’s secretary stands up from her desk. Litigious Lawyer exits Wallstreet Keynoter’s office and quickly and quietly closes the door behind him. “Sleuth!” He says with a faked smile on his face. “You should’ve told me you were coming.”

“We need to talk.” Sleuth says as he steps up to Litigious Lawyer.

“Can it wait? I actually need to get back to work right now.” Lawyer says. “I’m pretty busy right now.”

Sleuth grabs Lawyer by the lapels and throws him into the wall. “I’ll bet you’re busy.” Sleuth accuses.

“Sleuth,” Lawyer says with a worried look on his face. “What’s this about?”

“Don’t play dumb with me.” Sleuth says, jabbing a finger into Lawyer’s chest. “Your little army of private detectives. Don’t tell me you don’t know about them.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Lawyer says. Lawyer lies.

“I told you, don’t play dumb!” Sleuth shouts. “You had me followed as soon as I left here yesterday, and then when I track down your detectives’ headquarters I hear you on the other end of the phone!”

“Sleuth,” Lawyer pleads.

“What the hell have you gotten yourself into?” Sleuth asks as he starts quickly pacing with his hands on his hips. “Dammit, Lawyer, I thought you were better than this. I never expected this sort of thing from you.”

“Let me explain.” Lawyer says as he holds his hand up in a placating gesture.

“For Skaia’s sake, Lawyer, you work for her husband! The former White King! Our friend and general!” Sleuth shouts. “How could you do something like this?”

“Problem Sleuth!”

Sleuth stops pacing and immediately stands straight up. He knows that voice. He recognizes it well. It’s been a long time since he heard it like that, like a general ordering his bickering soldiers to fall in line. But his reaction is still the same and it embarrasses him. He’s not a soldier anymore, he doesn’t have to answer to anyone. Why do his feet and back feel like they do?

Sleuth looks at the doorway. Wallstreet Keynoter is standing inside. He’s wearing a frown. He takes a step outside and slowly raises his arm. “Step inside.” He orders, pointing inside his office.

Sleuth glares back. “I don’t take orders from you anymore.”

“I am more than well aware of that, Problem Sleuth.” Keynoter says the final words with a condescending tone. “But while you’re in my bank you’ll do what I tell you.”

Sleuth stares him down.

“So step inside.” Keynoter orders again. “Or get out of here right now.”

Sleuth keeps staring. Sleuth feels like a disobedient teenager having a spat with his parents. Or he would feel like it if he had any concept of human teenage rebellion. So instead Sleuth feels like a soldier again and he really doesn’t like it, but he can’t fault Keynoter for being perfectly fair about it. Sleuth breaks eye contact, looks at his shoes for a second and then walks past Keynoter into his office. Keynoter doesn’t break the stare.

“Sit.” Wallstreet Keynoter orders and Sleuth finds it’s surprisingly easy to follow. Keynoter walks to his desk and sits down. Litigious Lawyer enters the office, closes the door, and takes a position at the side of the room. “Now, are you going to tell me what it is you barged into my bank and assaulted one of my employees for?” Keynoter asks with restrained anger.

Sleuth glances at Lawyer and back at Keynoter. “It’s between me and him.”

“Litigious Lawyer is my right hand man.” Wallstreet Keynoter says. “If you have a problem with-“

Problem Sleuth: Have realization.

The realization that you think you should be having is that as Keynoter’s right hand man whatever Lawyer did was because Keynoter told him to do it. Wallstreet Keynoter had Litigious Lawyer steal the Sapphire of Alternia from Wealthy Quantifier, along with several other crimes, for reasons you don’t understand.

But the realization you’re actually having is that this case is just like all your other cases: a quarrel between a married couple. It’s just that the things they quarrel over have a higher price tag and are a lot more dangerous. You should have seen this coming. You don’t know why you’re surprised.

You have a lot of questions for Wallstreet Keynoter, and you’re not gonna give him any ground until you get an answer to every single one. You’re done being jerked around. It’s time to take control of this case.

Sleuth cuts off Wallstreet Keynoter by standing up and pointing his finger but is at a complete loss for words. “You!” Is all Sleuth manages after stammering for several moments.

“Sit down, Sleuth. This shouldn’t be as surprising as you’re making it out to be.”

Sleuth sits down as he shakes himself out of his stupor. “Keynoter, I hope you have a good explanation for all of this. Theft, murder, robbery. I don’t like what I’m seeing here.”

“The murder wasn’t supposed to happen.” Lawyer says. “That was an accident.”

“An accident?” Sleuth says, outraged. “You dumped the guy’s body in a dumpster!”

“Sleuth, you came here to get answers to your questions.” Keynoter interrupts. “And I will be more than willing to provide. But on several conditions. If you want to know what you’ve been looking for you will have to agree with them.”

“I don’t think it’s worth it, big man.” Lawyer says. “I tried talking to him about it yesterday and he wasn’t too happy about the idea, even just talking.”

“I know, Lawyer. But when Sleuth is as focused as he is now he’s incredibly imperceptive to everything else. I don’t think he caught on.” Keynoter says. “And he’s found out this much. What are we going to do if he refuses? He’s a friend of ours. Let’s give him the chance.”

Sleuth has no idea what’s happening. “Caught on to what?”

Keynoter smiles. “You’re too busy trying to decode my wife’s riddles that you don’t recognize when others are doing the same thing.” Keynoter says. He leans forward and places his elbows on his desk, holding his hands together. “Here’s how it has to be, Sleuth. You can walk away right now without getting any of your questions answered, but you have to drop the case you’re working for Wealthy Quantifier in its entirety. If you decide you’d rather get answers to your many pressing questions, I will give you my explanation. When I am finished I will make you a proposition. If you refuse, I will be forced to sequester you somewhere safe until I am finished with my plan.”

“No, no deals. You tell me what I want to know.” Sleuth refuses.

Keynoter shakes his head. “Like I said, Sleuth. This is how it has to be.”

“No, you lied to me, Keynoter. I came to you for help and you lied straight to my face.” Sleuth says, pointing an accusatory finger. “I’m pretty damn low on trust and respect right now. I’m not gonna make any deal with you.”

“I’m sorry I betrayed your trust, Sleuth. But with what you’ve found out are you really that surprised?” Keynoter asks.

Sleuth doesn’t say anything for a moment.

Keynoter opens his palms. “This is your last chance, Sleuth. What will it be?” Keynoter asks. “You know me. If I stole from my wife you know I didn’t do it lightly, and if I know you, you’re racking your mind trying to figure out a reason. If I know you, what I did isn’t enough. You have to know why.”

==>

He’s right. He’s completely and totally right. You really want to know why Keynoter stole the Sapphire of Alternia from Quantifier. Keynoter’s a decent, honorable man. He wouldn’t do something like that for money alone, since he’s awash in it. There must be another reason.

And you feel like you’re being incredibly stupid right now. You don’t know what you’re getting into, but for the sake of getting answers you’re about to agree to it. Every instinct and impulse is telling you not to, but you can’t stop yourself.

You have to know.

Sleuth sighs. He rubs his chin. He looks side to side, hoping the wall will give him guidance. Finally, he gives in. “Alright.” Sleuth says resignedly. “Let’s hear it.”

Wallstreet Keynoter gives a wide smile. “I’m glad you made this decision, Sleuth.”

==>

You wish you felt the same way.

Chapter Text

“Why did you steal the Sapphire of Alternia, Keynoter?”

Wallstreet Keynoter leans back into his chair. “Did my wife tell you anything at all about what the Sapphire actually is?” Keynoter asks.

Sleuth recalls his midnight conversation with Wealthy Quantifier. It was interesting, apparently, but nothing specific to say why. “No.” Sleuth tells the truth.

“It’s better that way. At least for now. Fortunately, I don’t have to tell you what it is for me to tell you why I stole it.” Keynoter leans forward. “I intend to wrest control away from the gangs that currently run this town.”

Sleuth raises a brow. “That’s impossible. The Midnight Crew built this city and they embedded themselves so far into it that nobody can get them out. The Felt are tougher than the Midnight Crew and they keep trying and failing.”

“The Felt are also incompetent.” Lawyer says.

“You don’t wanna underestimate them, Lawyer.” Sleuth shakes his head.

“I’m not.” Lawyer says confidently.

“Lawyer exaggerates but his assessment isn’t inaccurate. The Felt let opportunities pass them by and bludgeon their way through situations they could avoid or even caused themselves.” Keynoter says.

Sleuth shrugs. They’re not completely wrong. “So you think you can do what the Felt can’t?”

“It’s not just the Midnight Crew. Both of them are tearing the city apart with their gang wars, and taking money and lives and turning the city into a cesspool, all for a little cash. It’s disgusting.” Keynoter says. “I’ve been trying to fight them on my terms since I arrived here. Did you think I started this bank just to earn me money?” Keynoter extends his hands and motions around the room. Sleuth politely shakes his head to let him continue. “I did it to show everybody that it’s possible to make money without being a crook.”

“I don’t think you have everyone convinced about that yet.” Lawyer says with a small grin.

Keynoter returns it, leaning back in his chair. “Running a business well is not a crime, Lawyer.” He lectures mockingly. He returns his focus to Sleuth. “I’ve tried donating to charity, created a few charities of my own, paid liberal taxes to fund the police force, and a slew of other ideas.” Keynoter says. “None of them have worked. The Midnight Crew and the Felt are running around as strong as they’ve ever been and for all I’ve done they still run this town. Quite frankly,” Keynoter leans forward. “I’m tired of fighting them on my terms.” He leans back. “And they’re not even really my terms in the first place. This wasn’t my idea.”

“Whose was it?” Sleuth asks, already knowing the answer.

“Wealthy Quantifier’s. It was her idea to change this city for the better by taking the high road. The very high road. By being a shining example.” Keynoter says. “I don’t mean to talk ill about my wife, but it’s easy for her to have that opinion when she was cooped up in the palace all the time. Fighting actual battles definitely broadens the measures you’re willing to take to ensure a good outcome.” Keynoter puts his hand to his chin, reminiscing. “You know I fought the Black King for an eternity, don’t you? We used to talk about this sort of thing all the time. It was the only thing we could do.” Keynoter says, gazing off into the distance.

Sleuth thinks things over for a second. “I don’t think you give Wealthy Quantifier enough credit. I think she understands that.”

Keynoter returns his attention to Sleuth. “Of course she does. But even if she understands, she doesn’t think very highly of my position. I’ve given her idea a fair chance, it hasn’t worked, and now it’s time to try mine. There’s a lot more we could be doing to make this city a better place, and I’m more than willing to start doing it.”

Did Keynoter prepare this speech in advance? No, that wouldn’t be like him. He always made them up on the spot. “How does the Sapphire of Alternia figure into that?” Sleuth asks.

“It’s more than a simple jewel.” Keynoter states the obvious. “It’s a tool. It’s leverage. Just having it can move the Felt and the Midnight Crew from their strongholds. And with repeated application, they’ll eventually be gone for good.”

Sleuth squints and scrunches his brow in thought. “So if you have it why haven’t you started doing this yet?”

Keynoter and Lawyer look at each other. “It’s not that simple.” Lawyer says. “For various reasons we currently can’t get it to the big man. You’d be able to help us out a lot with that problem. I hear you’re good at that sort of thing, Problem Sleuth.” Lawyer says with a goofy grin. Sleuth avoids rolling his eyes. “Otherwise, we’d have to struggle with it ourselves, and that’s not an ideal solution.”

“But before we can even start talking about what you can do for us, we need to know whether you’re with us to begin with.” Keynoter says. “Does this sound good to you, Sleuth? Getting rid of the people who’ve tried to kill you any number of times? Making this city a better place?”

“It’ll be just like old times, Sleuth. Except it’ll be a lot cushier than old times.” Lawyer says with a smile. “At the very least we won’t have to stare at a checkerboard pattern for weeks on end.”

“Don’t forget the suits.” Keynoter tacks on.

“Who could forget the suits? They’re fantastic.” Lawyer agrees.


Problem Sleuth: Agree.

Whoa! Not so fast.

Well, you’ll agree with them about the suits. They really are fantastic. But you’re not about to hop on board with some old friends on some damn-fool idealistic crusade when your old friends keep company with thieves and murderers. Not when the thieves and murderers happen to be your competitors.

There are a few things you want to clear up first.


“That all sounds great. But it doesn’t look good when you put it side by side with what you’ve done.” Sleuth says. “The murder. What happened there?”

Lawyer and Keynoter frown. “That was an accident. The private detectives I hired weren’t supposed to kill the courier. They were supposed to take him and the package he was carrying to a safe place. Evidently the courier resisted and they shot him. They panicked and dumped his body in the dumpster.” Lawyer says. “They’re predictably tightlipped about who exactly fired the shot.”

“My wife is probably responsible for the courier’s resistance. Everyone she asks to do something takes it like a critical mission of the utmost importance with dire consequences should they fail. This happens with waitresses and gas station attendants, to give you an idea of how terrible her habit with this is.” Keynoter says humorlessly. “That courier likely didn’t know what he was carrying and he died protecting it anyway.”

“The police are trying to pin that murder on me.” Sleuth states.

Keynoter looks at Lawyer with some surprise. “There’s probably something we can do about that.” Keynoter says to Sleuth.

“You’re kidding.” Sleuth blurts out. “For somebody who wants to get rid of criminals you’re sure committing a lot of crimes in the process.”

“Calm down, Sleuth.” Lawyer says. “We couldn’t have the police poking into our business while we’re in the middle of it and Keynoter’s a powerful man with a lot of connections.”

“The deputy mayor was easily convinced. He’s as infuriated as I am over the criminal control of this city.” Keynoter says. “He practically begged to help me.”

“This was a temporary solution anyway, Sleuth. There was no way we were going to let a murderer go free.” Lawyer says. “Once we’re finished we’ll find out who did it and force him to confess.”

Sleuth briefly grimaces. “Using power and influence to cover up a murder is a real dirty trick.”

“We know, Sleuth.” Lawyer says. “It’s temporary.”

“Is there something else you want from us, Sleuth?” Keynoter asks. “I’ll get the police off your back.”

“Thanks.” Sleuth says without meaning it. “What did you rob your own house for?” Sleuth asks, changing the subject.

“Diversion.” Lawyer says. “Not that there was much chance of getting Wealthy Quantifier to look elsewhere after we stole her necklace from her, but it was still worth a shot. Unfortunately it was pointless anyway because the courier was killed.”

Keynoter nods. “There was another reason. Wealthy Quantifier has a fake of the Sapphire of Alternia. We had to find that at the same time we took the necklace, to make sure we actually found the Sapphire. Unfortunately the detectives didn’t find either at our house.”

“It’s possible she had both moved as a precaution or got to it before we did.” Lawyer explains.

“No, if she was anticipating us she wouldn’t have agreed to move it in the first place.” Keynoter says.

Sleuth looks between the two of them confused.

“I’ve been trying to make an opportunity like this for months. I’ve been telling her for a while now that I’m worried about her safety carrying that around her neck.” Keynoter explains to Sleuth, answering his unasked question. “I finally wore down my wife’s patience last week.”

“So is this why you’re so sloppy?” Sleuth asks.

Lawyer rolls his eyes. “You try putting together a plan to steal the most priceless piece of jewelry on this planet from the most mysterious and intelligent woman on this planet in less than a week.”

Keynoter is beaming.

“And what are you smiling about?” Lawyer snidely asks. “I could’ve used your help coming up with the plan. I told you I couldn’t go up against your wife, but nope, I had your full confidence to get the job done right.”

“You could’ve done better.” Sleuth reminds them. The mood in the room quickly deflates.

“Of course, Sleuth.” Keynoter says slightly sullen. “We’re not operating perfectly. If we were I think we’d have a much easier time convincing you.”

Sleuth let’s a moment pass as he processes everything that’s been said so far. “What do you need from me?” Sleuth asks.

“Like you said, we’re not operating perfectly.” Lawyer says. “And because of that we don’t have much confidence in the men we hired for the job. Right now we’re sitting on the Sapphire of Alternia. It’s in a lockbox in a warehouse with the rest of Wealthy Quantifier’s stuff. We’re not certain we can move it safely, and we’re not certain we’re not being watched.” Lawyer explains. “And I’ve hired some real thugs. I’m not sure they can be trusted, even with all the money we’re paying them.” He shakes his head.

“So why don’t you just drive out there and get it for yourself? Once you have it you should be fine, right?”

“I’m a very public figure, Sleuth. Where I go, people look, and I’d prefer to keep this as secret as possible.” Keynoter responds.

“I could go out there, but I’m not sure it would be safe to do that. I don’t think they can protect me and the Sapphire.” Lawyer responds.

“And when you find out what it is, you'll understand that there's a very obvious reason why just having it won't protect us, especially if we're trying to be subtle. Which we are.” Keynoter says.

Sleuth furrows his brow. “So you want me to go get it for you.”

“Yes.” Keynoter answers. “That’s exactly what we want you to do for us.”

“Are you going to tell me what it is?”

“That depends on whether you agree to do it or not.”


Problem Sleuth: Agree.

You’re having a bit of a conflict of interests here.

The Midnight Crew and the Felt are half the reason why you get any jobs in the first place. If you got rid of them, you wouldn’t have any work.

But you can’t deny that the city would be better off without them. If they had decent hired help Keynoter and Lawyer would already be busy doing that. Help like you.

Wallstreet Keynoter’s a good man and you have a lot of respect for him. You decide you’ll help him out.


“I’ll do it.” Sleuth says after a long deliberation.

Keynoter and Lawyer smile. “That’s great, Sleuth.” Keynoter says.

Lawyer pulls a pen from his coat pocket and scribbles something down on a piece of paper. He hands the paper to Sleuth. “This is the address of the warehouse. I’ll tell my men there to expect you at midnight.” Lawyer says.

“You’re a miracle worker, Sleuth.” Keynoter says through a wide grin.

Sleuth smiles. Sleuth understands the difference between Wallstreet Keynoter and his wife. She inspires zeal and purpose and peppers in enough mystery to make any task seem like a matter of life and death. He inspires loyalty, plain and simple. Sleuth feels pretty stupid about himself right now. Those few words of approval shouldn’t be making him feel this good but for some reason they do.

“Midnight’s not going to be a problem, is it, Sleuth?” Lawyer asks.

“It shouldn’t be too problematic so long as I get a help from a few friends I know.” Sleuth says.

“Terrific. Deliver it here first thing in the morning.” Lawyer says.

Keynoter stands up and walks around the desk. He pulls Sleuth out of his chair into a big hug. “It’s good to be working with you again, Sleuth.” He says.

Sleuth’s feet dangle for a moment. “Likewise, Keynoter.” He responds honestly.

Keynoter sets Sleuth down. “I don’t know if Lawyer told you how busy we were but we actually do need to get back to work.” Keynoter says. “Besides, you need time to prepare for tonight. So I won’t keep you any longer.”

Lawyer opens the door for Sleuth. “Good luck, Sleuth.” He says.

“I’ll see you two tomorrow morning.” Sleuth says as he walks out into the corridor. Sleuth stops outside of Keynoter’s office. He stares off into the view, thinking over the conversation he just had.

“Sir?” Keynoter’s secretary asks after probably more than a minute. “Is there something you need?”


==>

Oh, dammit.

You forgot to ask what the Sapphire of Alternia actually was and they forgot to tell you.

Oh, well. Looks like you’ll be finding out what it is soon enough.


“What?” Sleuth asks. “No, I was just on my way out.”

Chapter Text

Problem Sleuth starts walking through the corridor, taking in the view. The sun is still high in the sky. More than enough time to get Dick and Inspector on board to go get this hunk of jewelry. It’ll be the first time since Mobster Kingpin that the three of them get to work together. Sleuth almost looks forward to it.

Sleuth turns the corner to the elevator and two security guards are waiting for him. “Sir, if you’ll please come with us, we’re here to escort you out of the building.” One says.

Sleuth pops a cigarette into his mouth. “I didn’t need an escort yesterday.”

“Yesterday you didn’t punch out an elevator operator, ya moron.” The other says while jamming the call button. “Did you think you could just walk out of this building after committing assault?”

“Yeah.” Sleuth smirks. “Why wouldn’t I?”

The guards roll their eyes and turn away from Sleuth, waiting for the elevator to arrive. The doors slide open, revealing Sleuth’s old friend. He tries to close the door but the security guards slide their hands between the doors. “Relax, he’s leaving.” One of the guards assures the operator.

The doors begrudgingly slide open and Sleuth steps into the elevator, a guard flanking him at either side. Sleuth looks at the operator. He scowls at Sleuth.

“Who pissed in your coffee?” Sleuth asks. The guards shake their heads and groan. The elevator operator grits his teeth. The rest of the ride is spent in tense silence that Sleuth can only smile at.

The doors slide open at the ground floor. Sleuth steps out before the guards can motion for him to go, and they walk a few long strides to catch up to him. He walks past the receptionist’s desk. The receptionist cups her head in her hands and watches Sleuth walk through the atrium. He gives her a smirk from over his shoulder. He turns towards the exit.

“Alright, Problem Sleuth, that’s far enough.”

Sleuth stops dead in his tracks. “Hello, Anarchy Repressor.” Sleuth coolly greets. “You sure brought out the welcome wagon.”

“More like the paddy wagon.”

Sleuth grins at the remark. “What’s this about?”

Anarchy Repressor stands just inside the entrance to Keynote Bank. He’s flanked by two of his detectives and four cops in uniform. He takes a deep breath and exhales slowly. “You’re under arrest, Sleuth.” He says. “Don’t make this any harder than it has to be.”

Sleuth looks to the two security guards flanking him. They aren’t surprised. Sleuth figures they called the cops on him. He reaches into his coat. The hands of the cops and detectives all reach for their holsters.

“Easy.” Repressor says to his men, holding out a hand to stop them. “We’re not doing that yet.”

Sleuth pulls a lighter out and lights his cigarette. “Under arrest for what?”

“Murder. Assault. Trespassing.” Repressor says. “Being a pain in the ass.”

“Are those in order of seriousness?” Sleuth smirks.

Anarchy Repressor shakes his head lightly. “This isn’t a time for jokes, Sleuth.” He says. “Are you coming willingly or are you going to make this difficult?”

Sleuth stuffs his hands in his pockets. “I’m not going with you anywhere.”

“That’s called resisting arrest.” Repressor says. “Don’t make me shoot you.”

Sleuth gives an amused smile. “Repressor, you’re a terrible shot. You trying to shoot me scares me about as much as Spades Slick threatening to cut me up.”

Repressor huffs. He pulls a pair of handcuffs from his pants pocket and spins it around his finger. He catches the billy club with his hand and stops its spinning. “I’m losing patience, Sleuth.”

Anarchy Repressor is much better with handcuffs than he is with a gun. Sleuth’s seen him arrest thugs with them before. He usually throws the billy club at them and knocks them out and cuffs them to a pipe at the same time. Still no reason to back down. “That’s too bad.”

Repressor sighs and starts rolling up his sleeves. “Get him.”

The cops start forming a wide circle around Problem Sleuth. “Look, just go check in with the station. I’ve got this feeling that I’m not your guy and you’re gonna find that out pretty soon.”

The cops finish their wide circle, surrounding Sleuth on all sides. “What makes you think that?” Repressor asks.

Problem Sleuth stares straight up for a few seconds. He looks back at Anarchy Repressor. “No reason.” He says with a smirk. “I’m just feeling lucky.”

Repressor gets the message. He glares at Sleuth, wondering if Sleuth is bluffing. “If he moves shoot him.” Repressor says as he turns around and walks out the door to his car.

Sleuth is left with six cops with itchy trigger fingers surrounding him, all with eyes staring down the barrel of their guns. Sleuth knows at least one of them is dirty, and without Anarchy Repressor to keep them in line, well, accidents happen. Cops are people too and they make mistakes just like everybody else, especially if those mistakes are convenient.

“What are you doing here?” One of the detectives asks. Must be the dirty one.

“Opening a bank account.” Sleuth says. “What else would I be doing here?”

“Are you serious?” The detective asks, waving his gun in front of Sleuth. “What are you really doing here?”

“None of your damn business.” Sleuth looks at the detective's shoes. “Fancy footwear. A little outside a detective's salary, isn’t it?”

The detective hesitates. “I asked you a question, smartass.”

Sleuth takes a few steps towards the detective, standing inches away from the gun. He looks the detective straight in the eye. “And what are you going to do if I don’t answer? Shoot me?” Sleuth snaps. “Killing a man during an arrest is going to get you kicked off the force.”

The detective blinks several times but holds steady. Usually when Sleuth does this they start getting nervous and doing nervous things, like sweating, adjusting the grip on their gun. Sleuth is impressed.

Sleuth leans in closer. “And tell me,” He whispers to the detective. “What good are you to the Midnight Crew if that happens?” Sleuth starts giving a sinister grin. The detective’s eyes widen by a fraction.

“Alright, that’s enough.” Anarchy Repressor says walking back into the atrium. He’s rolling down his sleeves. “What do you know? Problem Sleuth is actually right. We’ve suddenly got enough time to work the case.” Repressor says. “By the book.” He emphasizes.

The cops lower their weapons. The detective takes a step back from Sleuth. “But he’s right here!” He protests. “Why don’t we just take him down to the station and ask him some questions?”

Anarchy Repressor walks to the detective. Sleuth offers him a cigarette. Mildly surprised by the offering, Repressor takes it and sticks it in his mouth. “If you were any good at your job you’d know Sleuth didn’t kill that courier.” He half shouts at the detective. “Just like I’ve been telling you the whole damn time.” Repressor finishes.

“Captain,” The detective says.

“Am I going to have to start shouting?” Repressor says in a raised voice. “Get out of here. We’re leaving.” The detective gives Repressor a glare. Repressor glares right back. The detective filters out of the building with the rest of the cops. Repressor turns to Sleuth. “Do I want to know how you pulled that off?” He asks.

Sleuth shakes his head. “No. No you don’t.”

That satisfies Repressor. “You got any leads?” He asks.

“A big one.” Sleuth says with a smile. “I’ll have your man in no time.”

Repressor thinks for a moment. “This murder. It’s part of something pretty damn serious.” He doesn’t ask so much as states. “I don’t want to know anything about it, do I?”

Sleuth nods. “You’re a smart guy, Repressor. You know when to not ask questions.”

“If that makes me smart you’re a damned idiot.” Repressor says. “Don’t get yourself killed getting too deep into some mystery, Sleuth. If you’re dead who am I going to lean on to solve all my cases? I might have to start doing my job for once.”

“What a crying shame.” Sleuth says. “It’s good to know our anarchy repressors are hard at work ensuring the city is safe by tracking down problem sleuths and leaning on them for favors. And never paying them back.”

“Still sore about the favors, huh. Get over it, Sleuth. It saves the taxpayer money.” Repressor pulls the cigarette out of his mouth and looks it over for a moment before putting it in his coat pocket. “Be careful out there, Sleuth.” He says as he walks out the door. Sleuth watches Anarchy Repressor get in a cop car and drive away.

Problem Sleuth walks outside and hails a cab. It’s the middle of the day in the middle of downtown and only a few seconds later a cab pulls up to Problem Sleuth. Sleuth opens the rear door and steps inside. “Where to?” The cab driver asks.

Sleuth gives him the address to his office. The cab starts rolling and Sleuth starts thinking about how he’s going to get the Sapphire of Alternia. Just driving out to the warehouse, the three of them, Problem Sleuth, Pickle Inspector, and Ace Dick, is out of the question. If Lawyer’s worried about his men being watched Sleuth is going to have to deal with that. And what if the Midnight Crew and the Felt get involved somehow? That’s going to require some serious ingenuity. At least they’ll be in the warehouse district. That place is a maze, but it works both ways.

And what is Sleuth going to do in the meantime? He can’t go to his apartment and take a nap or anything like that, as much as he’d like to. He has to stay mobile. The Felt and the Midnight Crew might not want to talk to him right now, but that can change at any minute. Better to not get caught off guard.

The cab pulls up to Problem Sleuth’s office building. He pays the driver and steps out of the car. He goes up the stairs and reaches for the handle to the door of his office.

==>

There’s somebody in your office.

Seems like they’re talking to somebody. Better be prepared for anything.

Problem Sleuth: Be the person in your office.

You are now Problem Sleuth.

You are one of the top problem sleuths in the city. Solicitations for your personal affection are numerous in quantity. Satisfaction in your love life, adequate. It is an average autumn afternoon. You are feeling particularly lovesick today.

What will you do?

Problem Sleuth?: Answer phone.

You pick up the phone even though it isn’t ringing. It’s Persevering Maillady. She says she’s got some kind of problem and needs your help right now. You ask what it is. She says she needs you to come help her with something at her apartment right now. It’s urgent, apparently.

You tell her you don’t have time for her games and slam the phone down and feel simultaneously smug and awful about pretending to be that oblivious jerk and that you can’t even come up with a fantasy where he doesn’t turn you down. Respectively.

You sigh.

==>

Oh no!

Problem Sleuth just burst into his office and his key is pointed right at you and oh no this is so embarrassing.

Persevering Maillady is sitting in front of Problem Sleuth’s desk wearing Problem Sleuth’s back up hat. She’s looking particularly hardboiled, but really, anyone would with that hat. Problem Sleuth puts his key back into his coat pocket. “What are you doing?”

Maillady stammers for a few seconds while staring wide eyed at Sleuth. Sleuth watches her face turn from shock to determination. It’s an odd transformation for Persevering Maillady. “You better have a good reason for barging into my office because I already got a million cases and you better believe I’m not looking to take on another unless it pays handsomely so if you want me to check out who’s skimming off the top of your fruit stand you can do yourself a favor and get the hell out of my office.” Maillady says, doing her best Problem Sleuth impersonation. Her finger is dramatically pointed at the door.

Sleuth looks at her. “Get out of my chair and give me my hat back.”

Maillady sheepishly stands up and hands Sleuth his hat.

==>

Thank goodness. Your candy corn is safe.

Since your current hat is bloodstained you swap it with your back up, making sure to stash your candy corn safely.

Problem Sleuth sits down in his chair. He tosses his bloodstained hat at his filing cabinet, and it catches on the corner. Maillady grabs her elbow. “I, uh, wasn’t expecting you.”

“You weren’t expecting me?” Sleuth raises a brow. “I wasn’t expecting you. Much less the way you were.”

Maillady’s eyes search the room for an appropriate answer. “I guess we weren’t expecting each other.” She reluctantly laughs.

“Do you do this often?”

“Well, no, but I had your hat, and I had nothing to do after I dropped off your mail.”

Sleuth scratches his head. “How did you get my hat?” Sleuth asks. “Nevermind. Where’s my mail?” He changes his mind.

Maillady reaches for her messenger bag and pulls out a few envelopes. “There’s nothing interesting.”

Problem Sleuth takes the envelopes from Maillady and looks them over.

“Where were you this morning? I missed you.” Maillady says. “I mean, I didn’t catch you here.” She hastily adds.

And this is the second conversation Sleuth isn’t looking forward to having. “I was busy and couldn’t make it in.”

“Busy with what?”

“I got distracted and couldn’t stop by the office.”

Maillady stares daggers at Sleuth. “Didya get distracted by her pretty white eyes or her shiny black legs or how fast she is?”

Sleuth looks at Maillady. “I nearly got arrested by badge wearing goons. And there were cops waiting for me here.”

“Oh.”

“I think you’re being unfair to Transportation Deferrer. She’s a friend of mine, you know.” Sleuth says. “Friend.” He mouths slowly.

“So,”

“You’re out of line.”

“Right.”

A moment passes. “She apologized. For arguing with you last night.”

A fire lights up in Persevering Maillady’s eyes. “There’s no way I’m going to let her be the better woman! I’m going to apologize ten times better than she did!” She puts her fists on her hips.

Problem Sleuth opens his mouth to speak up, but realizes telling Maillady that that’s missing the point of an apology is pointless.

“Problem Sleuth!” She yells. “I acted like I was freshly cloned yesterday evening when I should have been acting my age by being mature in the face of your cab driver’s unladylike accusations and insults!”

Problem Sleuth puts his hand to his forehead.

“So I hope you’ll forgive me for what I did last night and for being terribly jealous just now as well and if there’s anything I can do to make up for it and I really do mean anything I will happily do it!” Persevering Maillady finishes, look of pride on her face, as if she were the most noble soul on the whole planet.

Problem Sleuth rubs his mouth and looks at Persevering Maillady. “Do you mean it?”

Maillady gasps. “How could you question my sincerity?” She asks.

“Because you did it to one up somebody else.”

Maillady huffs indignantly and folds her arms. “Maybe if somebody had shown up at their office this morning they would’ve gotten a heartfelt apology then and wouldn’t be lecturing somebody about giving him an apology after somebody else did now.” Maillady glares. “You’re being kind of a jerk about this.”

Sleuth points to himself and raises a brow.

Maillady nods.

Problem Sleuth shrugs. That’s obviously the best he’s going to get from Persevering Maillady about it. Sleuth thinks she means well, at the very least. “Just forget it ever happened.”

“So you forgive me?”

Sleuth nods.

“Did I outapologize your hussy cab driver?”

Sleuth rolls his eyes. “Yes, you did.” Sleuth humors her.

Maillady smiles happily.

“You seen Pickle Inspector around?” Sleuth changes the subject.

“Oh, him? I tried saying hi to him a little while ago but he was off in his own world.” Maillady says.

Sleuth stands up out of his chair. “Thanks, Maillady.”

“What do you need him for?” Maillady asks as she grabs her bag.

Sleuth looks out the window. “I need to do some work with him.” Sleuth scans the surroundings. “Dammit.” He curses.

“What’s wrong?”

Sleuth looks to the top of the building across street from his office. A jittery yellow hat is being repeatedly pushed down by a blue top hat. “Nothing. Just the Felt watching me for some reason.” Snowman must really not be giving up on the idea that Sleuth knows something. She’s right, not that she has any reason to be.

“Oh no!” Maillady’s hand covers her mouth. “What do they want with you now?”

“Beats me. If they think I know something and they see you and me talking, they might think you know something. And then the Felt might want to talk to you. And the Felt don’t talk nicely.” Sleuth says. “We need to get you out of here somehow.”

Sleuth walks past Maillady and opens the door to the hallway outside his office. He takes a left and throws open Pickle Inspector’s office door. He looks around.

==>

What is this moron doing? You thought you told him to never go back in there.

Time to snap him out of it.

Problem Sleuth: Snap Pickle Inspector out of it.

Sleuth walks up to the makeshift fort that Pickle Inspector is hiding in, no doubt prancing around some crazy imagination land. He kicks it over. Pickle Inspector falls out of the debris and blinks at Problem Sleuth several times. He then ogles to Sleuth’s left. Maillady is standing behind Sleuth.

“Come on, Inspector. We’ve got work to do.” Sleuth offers Inspector a hand.

The tall detective grabs Sleuth’s hand and he stands up. “What is the meaning of this, Problem Sleuth? I was in the middle of a quite fascinating day dream.”

“The Felt are watching my office.” Sleuth points at Maillady with his thumb. “We need to get her out of here.”

Inspector grabs his hat from the floor and holds it at his waist. He turns to Maillady. “Worry not, Persevering Maillady. We will do our best to ensure that you avoid any unpleasant interaction with the Felt.” He places the hat on his head.

“Oh, thank you.” Maillady says, not sure what to say.

Sleuth turns to Maillady. “Wait ten minutes in Dick’s office and then take the fire escape out.” He says. “We’ll make sure the Felt don’t follow you.”

“How are you gonna do that?” She asks.

Inspector opens the window to his office. He leans out. “Ho, up there! Itchy! Doze!”

“By acting like we know something.” Sleuth says. He doesn’t even blink as Inspector fires several loud shots out of his sextant at the two green thugs.

Maillady squeals in surprise. “Go.” Sleuth orders. Maillady rushes out of Inspector’s office. Moments later Sleuth hears the door to Dick’s office close shut.

Sleuth walks to the window. “Think that’ll be enough?” He asks. “I could go spray ‘em a little bit while you got ‘em pinned down.”

“I believe so long as we pretend to make a hasty and purposeful egress they will be convinced to pursue us and not Persevering Maillady.” Inspector says, pulling himself in from the window.

“Then let’s go.” Problem Sleuth pulls out his key ring.

Pickle Inspector and Problem Sleuth rush out of Inspector’s office and down the stairs to the street. They run to Inspector’s car. Sleuth jumps over the hood and gets in the passenger seat. Inspector enters the driver seat and starts the car. As the car starts rolling Sleuth looks at Itchy and Doze up on the roof. They’re pointing at him and yapping into a walkie talkie. He fires a few rounds from his key ring at the pair for good measure.

The car puts distance between them and the Felt. Sleuth faces forward in the seat. “I’m glad I caught you, Inspector.” Sleuth says. “I need to talk to you. I’m gonna need your help.”

“Did we successfully convince them to follow us?”

“Looks that way.”

“Very well.” Pickle Inspector says. “You know I am always willing to assist you, Problem Sleuth. What do you require me to do?”

“Inspector,” Sleuth starts. “I know where the Sapphire of Alternia is.” He says with an excited grin.

Inspector takes his eyes off the road and ogles Sleuth for several seconds. Sleuth points back to the road.

“If Anarchy Repressor’s dirty man is as dirty as Diamonds Droog isn’t, the Midnight Crew are gonna be all over us tonight. And the Felt are going to be crawling over us all the same.” Sleuth says. “We’re going to need Dick. And we’re going to need a plan.”

“How will we retrieve the Sapphire of Alternia? Will we have to force an entry and take it from armed guards?”

Sleuth raises a brow. “Huh? No. That’ll be the simple part. We’re just going to pick it up at a warehouse.”

Inspector works through the scenarios quickly before he settles on one. “Sleuth, did you make an agreement to transport the Sapphire of Alternia to the person who stole it?”

“Yeah.” Sleuth says. “We’re taking it to Wallstreet Keynoter.”

“Problem Sleuth!” Inspector suddenly shouts. “You made a promise to Wealthy Quantifier to return it to her and her alone!”

Problem Sleuth’s heart sinks as he remembers. “Damn.” He says. “You’re right.”

Chapter Text

A few minutes are spent in silence between Problem Sleuth and Pickle Inspector. Neither is willing to cut the tension between them by saying anything.

“Where is our destination?” Pickle Inspector suddenly speaks up.

“Right.” Problem Sleuth quickly responds. “I figured I’d help you out with one of the cases I gave you. To give us time to plan while we snap incriminating photos.”

“Very well.” Pickle Inspector says. He starts moving through traffic.

Another few minutes of silence. Problem Sleuth looks everywhere except Pickle Inspector. The streets are still full with pedestrian traffic, and cars drive down the roads. These are some nice apartments Inspector’s driving by. Too bad Sleuth will never be able to afford one.

“Wallstreet Keynoter was pretty damn convincing.” Problem Sleuth says, broaching the subject both of them were avoiding.

“He would have to be.”

“He said he wanted to get rid of the Midnight Crew and the Felt. He said he needed the Sapphire of Alternia to do it. I don’t know what happened.” Sleuth says. “I came in angry, but then he just started telling me what to do and it was so easy to follow along.”

Inspector nods.

“He killed an innocent man and he said it’d all be okay in the end.” Sleuth says, disappointed with himself. “And somehow I thought it was a good idea going along with it.”

“Dwelling upon events that happened less than an hour ago will not change anything.” Inspector says. “What will you do now?”

“Shit, I don’t know.” Sleuth folds his arms and looks out the window. “I’m stuck between bickering monarchy. If I help one I betray the other, and I wish I didn’t care about something like that, but it’s tearing me apart.”

“You already promised to help Wealthy Quantifier.” Inspector says. “And she is paying you.”

“But it’s Wallstreet Keynoter. You know how it is with him.” Sleuth sighs. “Maybe I’ll grab it and give it to the Midnight Crew. There, nobody wins, both of them are equally disappointed with me.”

“Why not the Felt?”

“Because the Felt are a bunch of morons who have no idea how to run a town. The only reason they’re even competing with the Midnight Crew is because they cheat.” Sleuth says. “Like hell I’m giving them anything.”

There’s a small smile on Pickle Inspector’s face. “That is a horrific solution.” He says. “You would be far better off taking it to the wasteland and throwing it in the sands.”

“I know.” Sleuth rubs his brow.

Inspector waits. “Whatever decision you settle upon you are in a perfect position to retrieve the Sapphire for either party. That is rather fortunate.”

“No kidding. Even when I’m stumbling around I get results.” Sleuth half smiles. It’s a pretty big bright point, all things considered. It doesn’t make the decision about who to take it to any easier.

“What will you do, Problem Sleuth?” He asks again.

“I’m not about to break a promise. Even if I only made it because she demanded it.” Sleuth says. “I swear, I am never doing any favors for either of them again. I want to be my own man instead of someone whose knees have trouble not bending in front of them.”

Inspector says nothing.

“Maybe I’ll change my mind between now and when I get it.”

“I would disapprove strongly.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Sleuth says. “Let’s just go find Dick and figure out how to grab this hunk of jewelry.”

Problem Sleuth & Pickle Inspector: Find Ace Dick.

Your plan to find Ace Dick is simple. You say his name five times in front of a mirror.

You (that is, Problem Sleuth) thinks that’s stupid, but you (that is, Pickle Inspector) say that you (that is, Problem Sleuth) can’t deny the causal relationship between saying his name fives times while looking in the mirror and him showing up.

You (that is, Problem Sleuth) point out that you (that is, Pickle Inspector) said his name five times during the course of casual conversation while looking in the rearview mirror, and that it’s a completely unremarkable phenomenon that he’d show up since you (that is, Problem Sleuth) told Ace Dick to make himself available, and he’s doing what he’s told because that’s the only thing he’s good at. You (that is, Problem Sleuth) know Ace Dick well enough that if there was some sort of superstitious force that could do something like that it wouldn’t want anything to do with Ace Dick.

==>

After you (that is, the both of you) pulled over nearby the brothel your client’s husband frequents Ace Dick showed up moments later. You (that is, Pickle Inspector) consider this proof. You (that is, Problem Sleuth) says that’s stupid.

Problem Sleuth, Pickle Inspector, & Ace Dick: Plan.

You (that is, mostly Pickle Inspector and Problem Sleuth) spend the next several hours coming up with a plan to grab the Sapphire of Alternia. You have to make sure that you can get to it without pesky gangs trying to follow you to and from Litigious Lawyer's warehouse. This likely won't be easy.

You (that is, Ace Dick) think it’s a great plan, but you (that is, Problem Sleuth) tell you (that is, Ace Dick) to stuff your mouth with some more gummy worms because your ideas suck and are stupid and let the people with imagination work.

You (that is, Ace Dick) tell you (that is, Problem Sleuth) to shut up because you are apparently a stuck up jackass.

You (that is, Pickle Inspector) have had enough of this silliness from the both of you (that is, Problem Sleuth and Ace Dick), and suggest that the three of you (that is, Problem Sleuth, Pickle Inspector, and Ace Dick) just move on.

Problem Sleuth, Pickle Inspector, & Ace Dick: Describe cunning plan.

You already spent several hours coming up with a plan. You know the details in and out already.

Why would you waste time reviewing it? It certainly wouldn’t be for your (that is, Problem Sleuth, Pickle Inspector, and Ace Dick) benefit.

Problem Sleuth, Pickle Inspector, & Ace Dick: Enact cunning plan.

Problem Sleuth lowers a set of binoculars from his eyes. “So this guy isn’t actually cheating on his wife.”

“That is an accurate assessment of appearances.” Pickle Inspector says.

“I could go rough him up to make sure.” Ace Dick says in the back seat.

“Shut up, Dick.”

“How about,” Ace Dick snidely says, “You shut up, Sleuth.”

“I am delighted to have colleagues who can insult so imaginatively.”

“Shut up, Inspector.” Dick and Sleuth say in unison.

The three private detectives spend a moment as they watch their client’s husband walk out of the brothel and to his car. The sun’s set and it’s already well into the night. The green moon is low in the sky and the purple one high.

“Dick, do we have a crowd yet?” Problem Sleuth asks.

Dick looks behind him. “Some billiard hats are trying their best to look inconspicuous. If the black hats are watching us I don’t see ‘em.”

Problem Sleuth steps out of the passenger’s seat. Ace Dick gets out of the back seat and takes shotgun. “Don’t screw this up, Sleuth.” Dick says as he passes by Sleuth.

“Shut up, Dick.” Problem Sleuth says again. “You just worry about your part of the plan.”

“I don’t have to.” Dick says as Pickle Inspector starts driving his car away. “I’m good at my job.” Dick shouts while hanging out of the window.

==>

One of these days you’re gonna shoot him.

Problem Sleuth turns around and walks to Dick’s car. He scans the street. He spots the Felt’s vehicle instantly because it’s vomit green like everything else they own. He grabs his key ring from his coat pocket and starts walking towards the green car. As he looks down the barrel he takes stock of who he’s about to shoot. Striped blue, striped red, solid maroon, solid red.

The green men in the car duck down. Sleuth’s arms rattle as he empties the drum barrel of his tommy gun. Empty brass falls onto the street. Sleuth pulls the keys off his ring and he tosses the ring away. He puts the three keys onto a new ring and starts walking backwards to Dick’s car.

Colored hats slowly peek up, some with a few holes in them. Shattered glass and fifty new keyholes cover the Felt’s car. Predictably their response is quick and overwhelming.

Sleuth turns around and runs to Dick’s car as bullets smash into brick wall and shatter glass around him. Sleuth throws open the door to Dick’s car and jumps inside as Crowbar yells at his men to stop firing.

Problem Sleuth: Start Ace Dick’s car.

You push the button ignition and the car roars to life.

You’ve never been more glad you and Inspector bought him this push ignition. The unimaginative dullard wouldn’t stop blowing the key ignition off every time he tried to start the car. He never figured out what was happening, because he never gave it any thought.

Problem Sleuth sits himself in the driver’s seat and closes the door. He looks behind him. The Felt are jogging to Dick’s car huddled behind Sawbuck.

Problem Sleuth: Shoot Sawbuck.

Yeah, you’re not doing that.

Problem Sleuth floors the accelerator and the tires screech for a second before catching. He watches the Felt get smaller in his rearview mirror as he drives away. They run to their car and get in. Sleuth does a quick U turn. He slams the accelerator down again.

Crowbar: Wonder what Problem Sleuth is doing.

Every time this car gets damaged it comes out of your discretionary income. You’re getting pretty pissed off about it, and you just know Scratch is going to give you a lecture about minimizing expenses to the Felt. Like he cares.

You look at Problem Sleuth in what you’re pretty sure isn’t his car, because last you knew Problem Sleuth doesn’t own a car.

Is he...?

No, he can’t be.

He is.

He’s playing cluckfowl.

Crowbar: Tell your dumbass driver to get out of the goddamned way.

You scream at Matchsticks to get out of the goddamned way. You explain as quickly as possible that Stitch can’t stitch anybody back together if they’re in two pieces.

==>

He grunts. The car speeds up. You can start making out Sleuth’s smirk.

You tell Matchsticks that the last thing you’re going to do is lodge your crowbar in his thick skull and pry it open and let the pink powdery substance inside that used to be his brain billow out into the air before Problem Sleuth crashes the car into this one and twisting metal decapitates and dismembers and disembowels everybody in the goddamn car.

==>

Matchsticks sees reason at the last second. He turns the wheel and slams on the brakes and lets Sleuth pass by.

You’re really thinking you might pry open his skull anyway. Instead you tell Trace to get brainiac here to follow Sleuth.

Trace asks who you’re talking about because Matchsticks isn’t smart.

You groan and slap your forehead and tell him to help Matchsticks follow Sleuth. It’s not like you’re wasting the Felt’s chance to grab the Sapphire of Alternia or anything.

If you weren’t enslaved to Lord English you think you’d beg Spades Slick to make you a member of the Midnight Crew, just so you didn’t have to work with these nimrods all the time.

The Felt: Be the Midnight Crew.

You are now Hearts Boxcars.

You and Slick just watched the Felt screw things up with Problem Sleuth like the moronic buffoons they are. You and Slick shared a good laugh about it. It actually wasn’t a laugh. You don’t find things funny all that much. It more or less loosened your perpetual scowl for a small moment and the same thing happened to Slick.

You and Slick are currently following Problem Sleuth in the MIDNIGHT CRUISER. In a minute or two, Slick is going to radio Droog and him and Deuce are going to trade off following Problem Sleuth. You’re going to keep doing this until you find out where Sleuth’s going.

And then, you’ll take the Sapphire of Alternia for yourselves.

==>

And there it is. Slick tells Droog that the bastard is all his. Droog acknowledges. You see the BACKUP MIDNIGHT CRUISER turn a corner onto the street a ways behind Sleuth.

Smooth as clockwork, and every bit as logical.

Problem Sleuth drives down the road towards the warehouse district. He looks in the rearview mirror. If Sleuth wasn’t as good a private detective as he is, he wouldn’t have noticed the two identical pitch black cars trading off following him well behind him. It’s times like these that he really respects the Midnight Crew’s method of operation.

Problem Sleuth can’t see the Felt, but if they’ve got Trace in the car, then they know where he’s headed. Fin’s probably already at where Sleuth is headed, if the Felt are smart. But that's not something the Felt can be counted on to do.

Problem Sleuth drives halfway across town, the Midnight Crew tailing him the whole way, to a warehouse. Not the one where Litigious Lawyer’s men are holding out at. That one comes later. Instead, this warehouse is at the end of a maze of roads giving access to storage facilities that go deeper and deeper into the district. There’s nothing special about the warehouse itself, except that three of them, Sleuth, Dick, and Inspector, are familiar with it. Sleuth doesn’t know how Dick knows about it, but Sleuth and Inspector snooped around the place figuring out who was stealing from the warehouse on behalf of the manager. While on the case they learned how it operates, something that’s going to come in handy in the next hour or two.

Problem Sleuth hides Dick’s car with Inspector’s in the loading dock of a nearby warehouse. Under the cover of night, with only a few streetlights to give any illumination, Problem Sleuth slides open the warehouse door a crack and slips inside.

Chapter Text

The inside of the warehouse is completely dark, save for two rows of skylights that let in moonlight. The green moon gives one wall two rows of narrow green light, while the purple moon gives scattered illumination to the stock currently sitting in the warehouse, and the paths between and around it. It’s a maze. It’s completely impossible to find a way through. Which is why Problem Sleuth is currently wandering around it as fast as possible, learning how to get around without getting lost.

The warehouse door slides open. “is this the place” He hears Spades Slick ask. Problem Sleuth wanders until he can get a good look. The Midnight Crew is standing in the doorway. The orange glow of Diamonds Droog’s cigarette and four black blotches darker than everything else around them are the only indication it’s them.

“I saw Problem Sleuth go in here.” The glow brightens, then dims, “Not sure if it’s where the Sapphire is.”

“IT WOULD BE AWFULLY HARD TO FIND THE SAPPHIRE OF ALTERNIA HERE WITH ALL THE LIGHTS OUT, EVEN IF SLEUTH KNEW WHERE IT WAS!” Clubs Deuce says. Then he gasps. “SLICK, I DON’T THINK IT’S HERE. I THINK THIS MIGHT BE A TRAP!”

Sleuth hears Diamonds Droog sigh. “DID YA JUST FIGURE THAT OUT NOW” Boxcars bellows. “OF COURSE ITS A TRAP YOU EMPTY HEADED RUNT”

“well were not gonna find it without getting sleuth and were sure as fuck not gonna let the felt get to him first” Slick says. “deuce start rigging the place to blow. well need an exit on the other side”

Deuce’s silhouette happily skips out of view.

“droog boxcars” Slick addresses. “lets nab us some hardboiled jackass”

Droog clears his throat.

“and what the fuck do you want you got a problem with my plan”

“No, the plan’s fine, given what we’re dealing with. I just don’t think you should’ve said it out loud.” The glow brightens and dims quickly. It then drops to the floor and gets extinguished. “They’re listening.”

“its not like they can do anything about it even if they do know” Slick says. “lets go and would it kill ya stop ruining it for me when i try and sound like a fearsome mobster once in a while”

The three remaining black blotches disappear into the warehouse. Problem Sleuth looks up at the catwalk.

Pickle Inspector: Signal Problem Sleuth.

Using a series of complicated hand signals that you taught both Problem Sleuth and Ace Dick during the long planning session leading up to your presence here at this warehouse, you inform Problem Sleuth that Hearts Boxcars is taking the left path through the warehouse and will likely intercept Problem Sleuth if Sleuth does not leave the area immediately. You also tell him that Spades Slick will be vulnerable very soon as he will be in a location that will prevent Diamonds Droog from giving him covering fire and Hearts Boxcars will not be able to rush to his aid in a timely enough manner.

You are certain Problem Sleuth understood all that because he gave you a nod. You smile to yourself. The plan is working perfectly.

Pickle Inspector waves his hands around like an idiot. Problem Sleuth nods without understanding anything that Pickle Inspector was trying to tell him.

Problem Sleuth begins wandering through the warehouse aimlessly, looking for Spades Slick. When he finds him, he’s going to repay Slick back for everything he’s ever done to Sleuth. It probably won’t be too gruesome. Problem Sleuth isn’t going to torture him or anything. At worst he’ll just shoot Spades Slick in the back. For once Problem Sleuth is going to have the drop on Spades Slick and he isn’t going to let that opportunity go to waste.

Problem Sleuth hears the sounds of a car pulling up to the warehouse door echo through the building. The doors open and slam shut.

“Fin, what’s going on? The door’s open already.” Problem Sleuth recognizes the deep raspy voice of Quarters.

“I don’t know.” Fin’s voice echoes.

“Is this where the Sapphire is?”

“Maybe.” Fin answers hesitantly. “We’re about to get in a shootout with the Midnight Crew, and Problem Sleuth and the rest of those hardboiled jokers get involved somehow. We’re not going to start shooting each other for nothing, so it could be in here. But there’s too many future trails to tell what’s really going on.”

Someone giggles. Clover.

“So it’s a trap.” Quarters says.

“Probably. But if the Sapphire of Alternia is in here we don’t really have a choice not to go in.” Fin says. “And because we’re going to anyway, but we’ve got to get to it before Spades Slick does.”

“What are we waiting for then? Let’s kill us some mobsters.”

“We should wait for Crowbar to get here.” Fin says. “Not that we’re going to.”

Pickle Inspector: Take shot.

The crack of a sniper rifle firing several times echoes throughout the warehouse.

“Shit!” Fin shouts. “Where’s that coming from?”

“Dammit, Fin, I coulda used some warning!” Quarters yells. “This hurts like a son of a bitch!”

“What? You can take it.”

Problem Sleuth looks up at the catwalk for the warehouse. Pickle Inspector looks down at him and shakes his head.

==>

0/2 GREEN TAILS PERMANENTLY SHOOK. SHAKEN. DEALT WITH
1/? OPPORTUNITIES COMPLETELY WASTED

Pickle Inspector notices something down below and starts firing in the same direction. He starts walking backwards, silenced rifle fire sparking and ricocheting off the catwalk and the ceiling but coming from no clear direction.

Well, this is going about as well as expected. Problem Sleuth ditches finding Spades Slick and instead starts wandering to the entrance, hoping to catch Fin and take him out. That’s who they really need to get rid of, him and Trace. The Felt would be completely lost if they didn’t have those two to help them find people, which is exactly what Problem Sleuth needs to happen if he’s going to have any chance of grabbing the Sapphire of Alternia.

Problem Sleuth turns a corner in the maze of stacked crates and stops dead in his tracks. Purple moonlight runs smoothly over Hearts Boxcars because Problem Sleuth swears he’s not moving in that shadow. He’s got a black poleax in his hands and for all Sleuth knows of mythology Hearts Boxcars looks like an angel of death. Only when he notices Sleuth does he drop out of his glide and look like he’s actually walking.

==>

Or maybe you’re just terrified of Hearts Boxcars. None of this angel crap. What even is an angel anyway? One of those dumb things that loser kid kept killing. And if that loser kid can do it, so can you.

Maybe if you keep telling yourself that you won’t be terrified of Hearts Boxcars.

Sleuth pulls out his key ring. Problem Sleuth fires a quick burst of fire at Hearts Boxcars from the hip. With a twirl of his of poleax he deflects the fire away. Sleuth’s jaw clenches. He knows the Midnight Crew can do that sort of thing, but to see it in action is something else.

Hearts Boxcars, with a loud grunt, swings the poleax at neck level. Sleuth ducks quickly. The poleax smashes into a crate and sends splinters out onto the floor. Boxcars pulls it out of the crate and swings it down from overhead. Problem Sleuth leaps backward, the poleax smashing into the concrete floor. Sleuth readies his tommy gun as he steps backward.

Problem Sleuth backs into a crate as an incredibly heavy and deadly playing card flies past and just misses Sleuth’s head, embedding itself deep into the crate. Sleuth glances quickly at the giant hole in the crate and returns his gaze to Boxcars to see him lunging towards Sleuth, hands outstretched.

Sleuth tries to get a shot off but Boxcars grabs the tommy gun and bends its barrel upward.

==>

No! Not your key ring!

One of the keys is bent now. It’s completely unusable. Not even replacing the bent key with one of your many spares is going to fix it.

Boxcars grabs Sleuth by the front of his shirt and lifts him off the ground. He pulls his fist back for a punch. Sleuth throws everything he has into a right hook aimed at Boxcars’ nose. Sleuth hears a sick crunch, but Boxcars’ grip holds firm. Sleuth throws everything he has into a left hook aimed at Boxcars’ nose. Sleuth hears a sick crunch in the other direction. Boxcars lets go of Sleuth while bellowing in painful rage.

“Inspector!” Problem Sleuth shouts. “I need help with Boxcars!” Problem Sleuth puts his bent key ring into his pocket and pulls out a key. He dashes through the maze of crates and stock, hoping to shake Hearts Boxcars.

“AWW” Boxcars bellows. “YOU CRYIN TO YOUR MOMMY YOU LITTLE WIMP” He seems angrier than usual. Now why is that? The Midnight Crew should work on their anger issues at some point.

Sleuth doesn’t hear a response. “Inspector!” Sleuth shouts again. Nothing still. Sleuth continues to run through the maze.

“WHERE ARE YA SLEUTH” Boxcars screams. “ILL BREAK YOUR TINY LITTLE NECK AND BEAT YOU AGAINST THE WALL LIKE A RAG DOLL UNTIL YOUR HEAD RIPS OFF”

Problem Sleuth makes his way through the maze as quickly and quietly as he can. He’s lost Boxcars for the moment. He looks up at the catwalk. Pickle Inspector is in a fierce shooting match with somebody he can only assume to be Diamonds Droog. Pickle Inspector is holding his own, for the moment. It explains why he’s not answering Sleuth, but that’s something that’s going to need to be dealt with soon. But how?

“Dick!” Sleuth shouts. No answer from Dick either. Damn.

Problem Sleuth continues wandering through the maze. He cautiously turns several corners, key ready to fire a few rounds at a moment’s notice. The Felt have been lying low, which is far too smart of them. It’s either Fin knowing the future or Clover’s luck keeping them away from Sleuth right now.

Problem Sleuth turns another corner and sees Spades Slick swiping at Ace Dick. Problem Sleuth grins.

“Problem Sleuth!” Ace Dick shouts and glances.

==>

1/? SNEAK ATTACKS RUINED
2/? OPPORTUNITIES COMPLETELY WASTED
1/3 MEMBERS OF TEAM SLEUTH BEING TOTAL IDIOTS

Slick turns and throws a few knives and cards at Sleuth. Sleuth fires a few shots as he sidesteps. The cards and knives thud into the wall of crates behind Sleuth. Slick rushes at Sleuth, Rapier Wit ready to slay Sleuth with a timely one-liner.

“hate to stick it to ya” Slick shouts. “no goddammit thats fucking awful”

Sleuth pockets his empty key and pulls out his keyring. Slick thrusts but Sleuth deflects it upward with his bent tommygun. Sleuth steps to his right but nearly trips. His coat is pinned to the wall by a playing card.

“it looks like you” Slick says, pausing for effect. “stuck around too long”

“Slick, that’s terrible.” Sleuth says. A quick swipe at Sleuth’s neck gets blocked by the tommy gun.

“fuck you” Slick shouts, a haphazard vertical swing getting blocked easily by the tommy gun. “you think you can do better”

“I could come up with better one-liners with my back against the wall.” Sleuth smirks.

Slick growls.

“Look, Slick. Sometimes,” Sleuth pulls the card out of his coat. “You gotta play your cards right.” He suddenly swings the knife around to Slick’s neck.

Spades Slick pulls his neck back just in time. Sleuth follows up by smashing the butt of the tommy gun into Slick’s face. Stunned, Slick stumbles backwards into a crate.

Sleuth looks at Dick, who’s standing there, fists raised, ready to help in the fight somehow. “Real smooth, Dick, letting Slick know I was behind him.” Sleuth scolds.

“Whatever, Sleuth. I coulda taken him on my own.”

Slick rushes back at Sleuth, swaying to the side before finally shaking off the effects of the blow to his face. “that was just as fucking terrible as mine” Slick shouts, more offended about the one-liner than the blow to the face. He reaches for Sleuth’s bent tommy gun with one hand and aims a knife at Sleuth’s throat with the other.

Sleuth grabs the hand holding Slick’s knife and deflects it to his left. It peels off a thin ribbon of Sleuth’s carapace as it misses his neck. Sleuth drops his bent key ring and gives Slick a good punch to the gut.

Ace Dick is still just standing there. “Are you gonna help out at all?” Sleuth asks as Slick tries to remove blood flow to critical internal organs.

Ace Dick shakes his head from side to side. “I can’t find a good opening.”

Problem Sleuth wraps Spades Slick’s knife in his coat sleeve and yanks it away. Spades Slick pulls two cards out to compensate. “Go help out Inspector. He’s got his hands full with Diamonds Droog.” Problem Sleuth shouts.

“But what about Slick?”

“stop talking about me like im not here” Slick swipes at Sleuth’s chest. Sleuth jumps back. “dick” He stresses.

“I’m already fighting him by myself. I don’t need spectators.” Sleuth steps up and sweeps up his bent key ring into his hands. Sleuth backpedals, blocking quick swipes with his useless gun.

Dick shrugs. “I don’t like being ignored in a fight anyway.” He leaves into the maze of crates.

“bad move sleuth” Slick trades a knife for a longsword. “shouldve kept him around to stop your blood from soaking into the floor when you end up with a knife through your chest” Slick swings his sword wide. Sleuth blocks it with the bent tommy gun and twists his torso, avoiding the follow up from Slick’s offhand knife.

“But if I’m dead I can’t tell you where the Sapphire of Alternia is.” Sleuth says with a smirk. He swings the tommy gun like a club. It slides off Slick’s sword.

“you think i give shit about that”

Sleuth grins. “You’d be sad if you killed me.”

“wanna bet” Slick shouts as he thrusts with his sword. Sleuth leaps backwards and starts backpedaling through the maze of crates, giving ground to Slick’s furious assault.

Sleuth hears the sounds of a car pull up. He turns to the noise. Sleuth and Slick have managed to fight their way to the front entrance. Sleuth can see the lights of the car, but not who’s driving.

Problem Sleuth: Duck!

Before Problem Sleuth hears the whoosh of the sword he’s ducking down. Or that’s the way it seemed anyway. He turns his head back to Slick. He’s lunged too far forward, hoping to use Sleuth’s distraction to deliver a killing blow. Sleuth simply smashes the butt of his bent tommy gun into Slick’s chin.

Slick takes a stunned step backward and Sleuth swings his tommy gun like a club at the side of Slick’s head, knocking his hat clear off. Slick falls over to the ground. Problem Sleuth walks to Slick and pulls out his key. Slick looks up, a trickle of blood flowing down the side of his head. “well” Slick asks.

Problem Sleuth: Shoot Spades Slick.

No point hesitating. You’ve got him right where you want him.

But if you kill him, the Midnight Crew would crumble without his leadership, and you’d essentially be giving the control of the city to the Felt. You’re not sure you want to let that happen.

Dammit, hesitating is what you weren’t supposed to be doing now.

Crowbar: Make an entrance.

“Kill him.”

Sleuth watches Slick’s eyes widen, just as he’s sure Slick watched his own eyes widen. Slick scrambles into a crawl and leaps behind a crate as Sleuth slides into cover in the opposite direction. Bullets rip into crates and turn them into splinters, depositing their contents onto the floor. Sleuth sees enough impudent puppet rump to last him a lifetime.

==>

If you’re going to destroy a warehouse fighting the Midnight Crew and the Felt, you don’t think you could’ve picked a better one.

“What the hell are you shooting Problem Sleuth for!?” Crowbar’s screaming at the rest of the Felt. “How many times do I have to tell you idiots that we need Problem Sleuth alive!”

“But you didn’t specify who ‘him’ was.” Sawbuck says ashamed.

Sleuth readies his key and grabs his hat, only to feel the scabbed surface of his head. Beside him is Spades Slick’s plain and serviceable hat. Next to Spades Slick, past a dangerously open area that even the Felt wouldn’t have any trouble killing him in, is Problem Sleuth’s hat.

Slick gives a sly grin. He grabs Problem Sleuth’s hat and tosses it towards Sleuth. Sleuth returns the favor. Slick puts his hat on his head. “shouldve done it when you had the chance” He whispers.

==>

0/4 BLACK SUITS BLOODIED
1/1 UNLIKELY FAVORS PERFORMED
3/? OPPORTUNITIES COMPLETELY WASTED

Yeah, no kidding. Sleuth watches as Slick crouches low and disappears into the maze of crates.

Problem Sleuth puts his hat on his head and grips his gun.

“Move out. We’ve got enough muscle we can clear this place out.” Crowbar barks.

The entrance isn’t a good place to be right now. Problem Sleuth huddles low and makes his own disappearance deeper into the warehouse.

Chapter Text

As soon as Problem Sleuth is out of immediate danger, he begins reviewing the progress of his plan. At the rate he and his team are going he might as well not have bothered with it at all. The Midnight Crew, and especially Spades Slick, have an annoyingly effective habit of ruining the best laid plans.

Sleuth takes a moment to listen to everything happening in the warehouse. The Felt relaying information to each other. Heavy steps echoing through the warehouse. The sounds of a rotary machine gun spooling up. The Felt yelling to take cover because Hearts Boxcars is about to cover them in thousands of rounds a minute. And that he’s tossing his poleaxes at them while he’s doing that. Notably Problem Sleuth doesn’t hear the sounds of Pickle Inspector’s sniper rifle firing every few seconds. It either means he’s dealt with Diamonds Droog. Or that he’s dead.

Problem Sleuth searches through the maze, gazing at the catwalk for Pickle Inspector.

Clubs Deuce: Help out the Midnight Crew.

You hear lots and lots of gunfire inside the warehouse. You just know that Slick and Droog and Boxcars are going to need your help, and you’ve got no time to waste!

You put the time bomb you conveniently have in your hand against the warehouse wall and give it ten seconds to blow.

You feel like there was something you were supposed to do with whatever the thing was you just put against the wall, but you can’t let vague feelings of forgotten purpose get in the way of helping your friends.

But you’d never tell them that you thought that about them.

Problem Sleuth loses his footing and stumbles into a crate as a small explosion somewhere nearby rocks him. Isn’t it a little early for the explosions? The Midnight Crew are still in the warehouse. Problem Sleuth just forgets about it and continues walking through the maze.

He turns a corner with his key drawn and sees a short squat man with a blank look on his face.

==>

Now’s your chance. Do it. Come on. You know you want to.

You can’t do it. You can’t shoot him.

==>

4/? OPPORTUNITIES COMPLETELY WASTED

Sleuth sighs and puts his key in his coat. “Did you help Inspector?” Sleuth asks Dick.

“Yeah. Guy can’t take a punch.” Dick pulls a gummy worm out of his pocket. Straight from the pocket too. It’s probably covered in lint and other gross Ace Dick things. He stuffs it in his mouth and chews it loudly.

Problem Sleuth pulls his key ring out and hands the bent tommy gun to Ace Dick. “Fix it.”

Ace Dick easily bends the key back in place. He hands it to Sleuth. “You need any jars opened while I’m at it, honey?” Dick sneers.

Problem Sleuth runs his hands along his tommy gun. For some reason it seems shinier. Maybe it’s just because he can use it again. “Where is Inspector anyway? Our plan’s gone to hell and we need to start improvising.”

Ace Dick points upward. “Right there.”

Problem Sleuth looks up. Inspector leans over the catwalk and waves goofily. “What’s it look like from up there?” Sleuth asks.

Inspector peers through the scope of his sniper rifle. After a few seconds of gazing he lowers it and looks downward again. “Hearts Boxcars is single-handedly holding off all of the Felt.”

“Good.” Sleuth says. “Shoot him.”

“What?” Dick asks.

“Is that wise?” Inspector asks.

“If Boxcars retreats, the Felt will move forward. Then we can ambush them like we tried earlier.” Sleuth explains.

Dick and Inspector look at each other. They look back at Sleuth and nod. Inspector raises his sextant up to his eye and peers through the scope. After a few seconds of aiming, he fires several times.

“AWWWW WHADDAYA WANT” Sleuth hears Boxcars bellow. Pickle Inspector throws himself flat on the catwalk as one right after another bullet holes appear in the wall behind Inspector, forming gentle curves.

Sleuth hears the Felt yelling, trying to take advantage of the break in fire. Boxcars swears loudly as he’s forced backwards. “Move it!” Sleuth hears Crowbar order.

Sleuth grips his key ring. Dick holds his hairpin. Sleuth waves Dick to follow. Sleuth starts heading back the way he came, towards the entrance. He stops at each corner, peering around it before moving forward. He listens closely, judging the Felt’s positions by their talking. He looks upward, and sees Pickle Inspector following as best as he can on the catwalk, making sure to get good vision on where Sleuth is walking. Diamonds Droog is probably the only person who could’ve spotted Inspector up there, and now that he’s passed out, Inspector should be safe for a little while.

Problem Sleuth turns a corner into a long path between crates. Just as he does, Sawbuck turns the corner on the opposite end of the narrow crate corridor. Following close behind him is Trace. Problem Sleuth pulls his tommy gun to his shoulder and looks down the sights. He’s only got one chance, and dammit is Sawbuck hard to shoot around.

A shot rings out. Not Problem Sleuth’s. Sleuth looks behind him. Ace Dick is still there. He looks forward. Sawbuck has popped away. Sleuth looks up. Inspector has disappeared.

Pickle Inspector: Journey through time with Sawbuck.

The reality is far less pleasant than what you’ve imagined!

Sawbuck is a boor and an oaf and you can not think of a worse partner to travel through time with. You almost wish your finger hadn’t slipped.

Problem Sleuth looks at Trace. Trace is wide eyed in fear and it takes a moment before Sleuth realizes why that’s the case. Sleuth has his gun trained on just the person he needs to shoot and his body guard just disappeared into history. Trace is trying to backpedal but he’s already stepping forward and he can’t move his leg fast enough.

Problem Sleuth lowers the tommy gun from his shoulder to his hip.

Problem Sleuth: Sleuth Diplomacy Lv. 38: IMPROVING TRANSPARENCY.

In the pursuit of a resolution to this conflict that will benefit all parties involved, you decide to make Trace more transparent.

Bullets rip through Trace and paint the crate behind him red. Leg, chest, gut, arm. Sleuth keeps his finger pressed on the trigger. The Felt are hard to kill and he’s going to make sure Trace won’t follow him.

Halfway through the drum Matchsticks and Crowbar turn the corner and return fire. Sleuth pulls himself back into cover. “Get him out of there! Are you just going to let him get shot up like that?” Crowbar screams.

Sleuth looks around the corner. Matchsticks and Crowbar are pulling Trace by his arms. Trace is slumped forward, completely unresponsive. A thick trail of blood follows him where he’s dragged. “Stitch better be paying attention.” He hears Crowbar say.

==>

1/2 GREEN TAILS PERMANENTLY SHOOK. MAYBE. FOR LONG ENOUGH AT LEAST

Sleuth looks at Ace Dick. “That’s one down.”

Ace Dick almost gets a satisfied smirk on his face when Quarters appears behind Ace Dick. Ace Dick turns around in reaction to the look Sleuth must have and catches a punch to the face. With a pop, Ace Dick disappears.

Ace Dick: Journey through time with Quarters.

That doesn’t make any sense. You didn’t go anywhen. You just got punched in the face. You barely even felt it, to be honest.

Hey, where’d Quarters go? And what happened to the rest of the warehouse?

You rack your brain for a few seconds before you decide to just wait until someone explains it to you.

“It’s too bad I’m not supposed to kill you. You deserve it for what you just did to Trace.” Quarters says, pointing his undersized gun at Problem Sleuth. Well, it looks undersized in Quarters’ hands. His green coat is soaked red with blood around the bullet wound to his upper arm. It must not be slowing him down at all, because he’s gripping the gun tight with both hands. “Drop the gun, Problem Sleuth. You’re coming with us.”

“You can pry it out of my cold, dead hands.”

“Oh, I’d like to. But what Crowbar says goes.” Quarters says, grabbing hold of Sleuth’s tommy gun. He pulls on it, but Sleuth’s holds on. “Alright, I can wait for Matchsticks to get her-”

Sleuth pulls a key from his coat and fires six rounds at Quarters. One strikes Quarters’ outstretched wrist while the rest impact in various locations on Quarters’ expansive torso. Quarters lets go of Sleuth’s tommy gun and fires a wild spray out of his own gun while groaning in pain.

Sleuth ducks past Quarters and retreats down a corner of the maze. He takes several random turns, hoping to escape the Felt now that he’s really pissed them off. Not to mention Inspector and Dick both decided now would be a terrific time to go on excellent adventures and bogus journeys. Problem Sleuth is all alone with nothing but a maze of crates and his key ring standing between him and a bunch of dangerous mobsters.

“Coward!” Quarters shouts. Yeah, well, he who fights and runs away is a coward but at least he’s still alive.

“What are you crying about?” Sleuth hears Crowbar ask, as he runs further and further away from the Felt. “You got nothing to complain about.”

“It still hurts like a son of a bitch!” Quarters screams.

“Crowbar, the Midnight Crew’ll be shooting at us in a minute.” Fin tells Crowbar. “Is Trace going to be alright?” Fin asks, not bothering to conceal the concern in his voice.

“You tell me.” Crowbar says. “Does he still have a future trail?”

“I don’t want to look.”

A sober moment passes between the Felt. “I don’t know, Fin.” Crowbar says. “But you need to suck it up, tough guy, because you’re going to soak up a lot more bullets by the time the night’s done, and I don’t want to hear any complaining.”

“Got it, Crowbar.” Quarters groans.

“Now get a move on it. Problem Sleuth is all alone and like hell we’re going to let the Midnight Crew get to him first.”

Problem Sleuth takes in his surroundings. There’s a giant hole here in the warehouse wall. Clubs Deuce’s handiwork, obviously. Sleuth could head through it, run his way to the car and take it and drive away to safety, but Inspector and Dick would be all alone when they pop back in from whenever they are. And Problem Sleuth still has things he needs to do inside the warehouse. He leaves the hole and moves on.

And then he trips over a short crate or something and lands on his stomach. Problem Sleuth isn’t entirely sure what it is, but with all the cards flying around he has a good idea. He rolls over onto his back and props himself up on his elbows. Clubs Deuce has just skedaddled his way into Sleuth’s shins, scattering the contents of his deck of cards onto the floor around him. Already he’s sitting up, rubbing his head. He sees Problem Sleuth.

“OH!” Clubs Deuce exclaims. “HI, PROBLEM SLEUTH!” Clubs Deuce greets cheerily. Clubs Deuce then grabs the card nearest to him and starts beating Problem Sleuth with it.

C4 doesn’t make for a very good bludgeoning instrument but all the same Problem Sleuth is still nervous about it. “Stop that, dammit!” Sleuth shouts.

“OH, SORRY.” Deuce says. “I’LL TRY USING SOMETHING ELSE.” Deuce picks up another card at random. Now, the crook of felony, that hurts.

“No, I mean stop beating me with anything in arm’s reach!” Sleuth shouts, blocking Deuce’s blows with his hands. “What are you even doing it for anyway?”

Clubs Deuce pauses his thrashings as he thinks it over. “I DON’T REMEMBER. BUT I’M SURE THERE WAS A GOOD REASON!”

Problem Sleuth stands up. “How about you go ask Diamonds Droog what it is and get off my back.”

Deuce puts a finger to his chin. “THAT’S A GREAT ID-”

Sleuth punches Clubs Deuce and knocks him over. Clubs Deuce sits up. “HEY!”

“Shut it, shorty.” Sleuth snaps.

Sleuth starts walking away but stops himself as he hears a faint ticking noise. He starts searching around for the source of the sound. It isn’t anywhere on the ground near him, and wherever he moves it doesn’t get any louder or softer. Sleuth stuffs his hands inside his pockets and pulls out a ticking time bomb.

Some of Deuce’s cards must have fallen inside Problem Sleuth’s coat when he tripped over the short little guy. As he turns the timer off Problem Sleuth gets an idea. He picks up a few of the scattered cards that Clubs Deuce is trying to pick up. “You mind if I borrow these?”

“NO, BUT BE CAREFUL WITH THEM. THEY’RE DANGEROUS!”

“Thanks, Deuce.”

Sleuth puts the cards in his pockets and starts walking to the hole in the side of the warehouse. “DROOG!” He hears Deuce shout. “I FOUND PROBLEM SLEUTH, BUT I COULDN’T REMEMBER WHAT I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BEATING HIM UP FOR!”

Sleuth breaks into a run. He turns a corner in the maze and sees the broken warehouse wall. He glances to his right to see Crowbar with Matchsticks and Quarters at his flanks. “There!” Crowbar shouts.

Sleuth starts sprinting. He grabs hold of his hat and pushes his head down, ducking below the torn metal siding. Crowbar gets a few shots out of his submachine gun, but hits nothing.

Sleuth pulls out his keyring and throws his back against the outside warehouse wall, catching his breath after the sprint.

“Shit.” Matchsticks swears.

Problem Sleuth hears the crack of a radio. “Slick, get your ass over here. Bring Boxcars. The Felt are between us and Sleuth.” Droog calmly says.

The wall reverberates with the sounds of heavy fire and through the hole Sleuth hears nothing but shouting and guns firing and crates splintering and bullets ricocheting and the clink of a single grenade. Sleuth’s left ear rings as the grenade explodes.

Problem Sleuth runs away from the firefight and hugs the outside wall as he makes his way to the front entrance. He turns the corner and sees two green sedans, parked right in front of the front entrance of the warehouse. Problem Sleuth creeps to the entrance and peeks inside.

Spades Slick and Hearts Boxcars must have reinforced Diamonds Droog and Clubs Deuce damn quick, because the fight is going well in their favor. The sounds of the fight are rapidly approaching the entrance. He sees one green coated bastard take cover behind a crate and fire his weapon blindly.

Problem Sleuth turns to the green cars and pulls one of Clubs Deuce’s cards out. He sets the timer for thirty seconds and starts walking towards one of the cars.

Clubs Deuce: Bring out the big guns.

In between one step and the next a rocket flies out from the warehouse entrance and punctures the frame of one of the Felt’s cars. A moment later the car lurches upward as it explodes.

==>

1/4 VILLAINOUS VEHICLES TOTALED
1/? DEATHS NARROWLY AVOIDED. POSSIBLY MORE. YOU DON’T REALLY KEEP TRACK
1/? INADVERTENT FAVORS PERFORMED

As Sleuth shields himself and gets knocked over by the blast it crosses his mind that the car probably wasn’t the intended target of that rocket. The Midnight Crew must be trying to end the fight quickly, bringing rockets to a gun fight.

Problem Sleuth picks himself up and grabs the time bomb. He jogs to the other car and tosses it in the back seat. He starts running away from the blast but a giggle interrupts him. Oh no. Not him.

Sleuth slowly walks back to the car. If it’s who he thinks the giggle belongs to then that bomb isn’t going to go off. He circles around the car. Hiding from the action behind the car is Clover. He giggles as soon as he sees Sleuth.

“You shouldn’t be doing that.” Clover giggles. “Bombing people’s cars is not a very nice thing to do.”

Sleuth stuffs his hands in his pockets. Time to try and outwit this lucky bastard. If it’s even possible. Because Sleuth sure as hell won’t be hurting the guy. “I don’t think your boss has very nice things in store for me if he gets his way. Why don’t you have a problem with that?”

Clover giggles. “Because it’s fun to watch.” He giggles again. This guy is just giggling the place up.

Sleuth looks at the entrance. He can see most of the Felt taking cover. No sign of the Midnight Crew, except for the effects of their deadly weapons. “What are you doing out here? The rest of the Felt are gonna get torn up without you in there.”

“Oh, no. They’ll be fine. But I have to be here. Crowbar told me to.” Clover says. “He says I need to keep the cars safe.”

Sleuth looks at the flaming wreck of the other Felt vehicle. “You’re not doing your job.”

“I know.” Clover giggles. “But I’ll do my job with this one.”

Sleuth looks at the timer. Ten seconds. “You should probably clear out of here. That bomb’s going to go off any second now.”

“No it won’t.” Clover says proudly. “It’ll turn out to be a dud or the timer will break. Something incredibly lucky like that.”

Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Oh, come on.

“See?” Clover says.

“I hate you guys. You never play fair.”

Clover giggles.

Problem Sleuth: Stop playing fair.

“Do you know how lucky you are?”

“Yes.” Clover giggles. His face suddenly turns serious. “What do you mean?”

“You’re lucky the problem sleuth you’re trying to capture is here to heroically save your life from an explosion that looked like it wasn’t going to happen.” Problem Sleuth smirks.

A realization dawns on Clover’s face. Then a look of horror. “No, that wouldn’t be lucky at all. That would be terribly unluck-” Clover sputters.

Problem Sleuth grabs Clover and rushes him away from the explosion that didn’t happen. Almost like the bomb is waiting for Clover to get out of harm’s way, the car explodes like it was supposed to the moment Problem Sleuth clears the blast radius.

==>

2/4 VILLAINOUS VEHICLES TOTALED
1/1 LUCKINESS LOOPHOLES UTILIZED

Sleuth is knocked forward, and he wraps his arms around Clover. Not because he wants to protect the bastard but that’s just how his luck works. The wind gets knocked out of Sleuth as he lands.

“Are you alright?” Sleuth wheezes as he stands himself up. Clover answers but Sleuth just ignores him. Sleuth huddles behind the flaming wreckage of the Felt’s getaway cars as he catches his breath. He looks at the entrance. The Felt are practically toeing the exit.

Diamonds Droog: Check time.

You’d check your watch but you only wear it because it’s stylish.

You’ve got your own sense of timing and it’s telling you it’s right about time.

Midnight Crew: Fall back.

The firefight suddenly goes quiet. The Felt are poking their heads up, wondering what’s going on. Slowly, they stand up out of cover. “Huh. The Midnight Crew just stopped.” Matchsticks reports.

“Something’s wrong.” Fin says.

Crowbar stands up and walks to Fin. “What is it?”

“I don’t know.” Fin says. “Something’s just wrong.”

Crowbar gives a dissatisfied look. “Keep your eyes open.” He orders, not really knowing what else to say. He walks out of the front entrance and looks at the wrecked cars. “Do I have you to thank for this, Sleuth? This all comes out of my discretionary income, you know.”

Problem Sleuth pulls his key ring out and loads a new drum. He remains silent.

“He’s right here.” Clover points Sleuth out.

“It’s over, Sleuth.” Crowbar says. “Don’t make this difficult.”

Problem Sleuth remains silent and finishes reloading. He’s going to have to be quick. Quicker than all the Felt if he wants any chance of getting out of here alive.

Warehouse: Explode.

The supports on the outside of the warehouse blow apart, producing a massive fireball. The walls and roof of the warehouse collapse inward in flames. Crowbar gets blown back several feet. The waves of heat blast over the top of the car as it lurches away from the blast, pushing Sleuth forward.

After the rubble settles and the fireball dies down Problem Sleuth looks over the car. Only about a third of the warehouse has collapsed in on itself.

==>

0.363/1 INNOCENT WAREHOUSE CASUALTIES

Completely unsurprising, given who rigged the building to explode. Still, Sleuth is glad he wasn’t inside when it happened. And that he was hiding behind a flaming wreck.

Sleuth isn’t going to let an opportunity like this pass. Almost all the Felt are on the ground from the explosion, if not completely unconscious or dead from it, and for the moment, Sleuth’s got the drop on all of them.

Chapter Text

Problem Sleuth stands up from behind the wrecked car and starts walking towards the collapsed entrance. Crowbar stirs on the ground after the explosion, trying to come to as quick as possible. His hands feel the ground for his crowbar, his gun, or anything. Sleuth passes him on the right. “Stay down.” Sleuth says as he fires a single shot into Crowbar’s gut.

Crowbar gasps in pain as his hands reach towards his stomach. “You’ll pay for this, Sleuth.” He says.

“One more thing I owe ya.” Sleuth shouts behind him. “Put it on my tab.”

“Real clever, Sleuth.” Crowbar shouts. “I swear you’ll be dead by this time tomorrow.”

Sleuth turns around and walks backwards. He looks Crowbar in the eye. Sleuth doesn’t see hatred like that very often. It rivals even Spades Slick at his worst. Simmering, barely restrained fury can’t match impotent rage. “When are you gonna mean it?” Sleuth says, throwing his arms wide. He lets a smirk creep its way onto his face. For how much Crowbar is trying he can’t grit his teeth any further.

Crowbar growls and then screams in pain and swears. He turns away from Sleuth and looks into the night sky. Sleuth turns around to the warehouse.

The warehouse entrance has completely crumbled. What was once a large enough entry to back trucks into now is covered in twisted metal siding and flaming plastic puppets. The roof, the parts that haven’t completely fallen already, droop unstably and threaten to fall at any moment. The back of the warehouse remains undamaged.

Problem Sleuth starts climbing up the pile of rubble. He puts his hand on an unsettlingly shaped puppet nose and reels back for a bit, but continues up. He reaches the top of the pile and surveys the inside of the warehouse. Some of the crates have caught on fire, and if left unchecked, the rest of the stock will be eradicated. No big loss.

Beneath the drooping roof Problem Sleuth sees several green bodies in various states of alertness. They’re hard to distinguish without their hats. The two big guys are reaching for their striped hats. There’s a guy leaking blood all over the place with a solid red hat nearby. Then there’s a guy who’s just finished putting on his solid orange hat. Fin spots Problem Sleuth, and then glances nervously between Matchsticks and Quarters.

Problem Sleuth doesn’t give him the chance to call for help. He points the tommy gun at Fin. Fin stares back at Problem Sleuth, takes a deep breath, and waits for what’s coming.

Problem Sleuth: Sleuth Diplomacy Lv. 44: DISARMAMENT.

You turn over your ammunition to Fin as laid out in the terms of the treaty between you and the Felt. There can only be peace once you have given all your ammunition over to the Felt in a similar fashion.

Fin rocks back and forth as bullets hit him. He trips over as a bullet tears through his calf. Quarters and Matchsticks snap to immediate alertness and scramble for their guns. Quarters almost instantly gives up the search and leaps in front of Fin, taking a few bullets meant for his fellow mobster. Matchsticks grabs his rifle and positions himself between Fin and Problem Sleuth.

Sleuth throws himself backwards as Matchsticks returns fire.

==>

2/2 GREEN TAILS PERMANENTLY SHOOK
100% PRIMARY FELT OBJECTIVES COMPLETED
33% SECONDARY FELT OBJECTIVES COMPLETED

Sleuth carefully descends down the pile of rubble. He jumps off it and into the maze of now burning crates. Sleuth knows the Midnight Crew are inside the undestroyed parts of the warehouse, but he doesn’t have a choice. It’s either die by the Felt right now for killing two of their number or get captured by the Midnight Crew. Given the options, the Midnight Crew are the way to go.

The crackling of the fire masks the sounds of Sleuth’s approach but does the same for the Midnight Crew. And in the dark of the night and the unlit warehouse Problem Sleuth shines a lot brighter than any of them. Not to mention that he’s approaching them with the fire behind him, making the matter of spotting him as simple as picking out his silhouette.

Sleuth carefully makes his way through the maze, making sure to scan all directions as much as possible. Don’t want Spades Slick to go all treeprimate on Sleuth and tackle him from above. It’s small comfort to Sleuth that Slick probably doesn’t have the patience to follow him without attacking for any extended period of time, so if something like that was going to happen it would have already.

Problem Sleuth sees a glint or a shine or something and immediately turns and points his key ring at it. He pulls off the drum of his key ring and checks its weight. He returns it to the tommy gun. He gulps, and builds up the nerve to check it out.

He approaches where he thought he saw something. It’s behind a corner of a crate. He turns it with his gun ready. All he finds is a shiny black bowling ball wearing Diamonds Droog’s back up hat. Sleuth wonders why any of the Midnight Crew have a bowling ball. Clubs Deuce immediately jumps to-

Problem Sleuth: Quit thinking about stupid stuff and dodge already!

Problem Sleuth steps back behind the crate as fast as he can, a large caliber bullet smashing into a crate where his leg would’ve been. The bowling ball does make an excellent decoy, Sleuth admits. Problem Sleuth turns the corner again, gun spraying fire in bursts, and starts advancing forwards. He doesn’t know where Diamonds Droog is but the Midnight Crew want him alive. If Droog can’t take an incapacitating shot he won’t take any shot. Unfortunately, that accounts for just one of the four.

Sleuth’s tommy gun clicks empty. He breaks into a run as he fishes out a new key ring in his coat. He replaces the keys as rapidly as possible.

==>

Looks like this is your last drum. Better make it count.

Just as he finishes reloading his tommy gun Diamonds Droog pops from behind a corner. Sleuth slows to a stop and raises his gun to his shoulder. Droog is already peering down the scope of his rifle. Time to see who’s faster.

Problem Sleuth squeezes the trigger. The tommy gun gets thrust upward as an arm is wrapped around his neck and starts squeezing.

“dammit sleuth will ya quit squirming around and just pass out already” Spades Slick shouts into his ear. Sleuth’s free hand reaches for Slick’s elbow and starts pulling. It’s not helping at all. Slick readjusts his grip. It’s even tighter than before.

“Nice,” Problem Sleuth wheezes out. “Try.” He manages to quip with the last of his breath.

Slick actually laughs at that one. Problem Sleuth tries to elbow him and step on his feet but he can’t get a good enough hit from his position.

Sleuth starts seeing black spots in his vision. He grabs the barrel of his tommy gun and wraps his other hand around the stock. He thrusts it backwards over his shoulder into Slick’s face. “goddammit sleuth” Slick says. “will you cut that out already”

Sleuth bashes it backwards again and again. Slick takes it to the face, and in an angry response he tries to tighten his grip even more. As Slick is adjusting Sleuth takes a breath and manages to slip a hand on the inside of Slick’s grip. He drops his key ring and pulls out a key, and angles it backward at Slick.

“and just what do you think youre doing”

“Slick, no.” Droog warns.

Slick releases one hand from his death grip around Sleuth’s neck to point the revolver away from his body. With only one arm restraining him, Sleuth frees himself from Slick’s grip and spins around. Slick stumbles to his right as Sleuth’s desperation powers his fist into Slick’s jaw.

Droog’s rifle is immediately up to his shoulder but Sleuth closes the distance almost immediately. He points the rifle elsewhere and gives Droog a powerful uppercut. Droog stumbles backwards.

“Is that all you got?” Sleuth asks between rapid huffs. “Is that all you got?” He repeats in a shout. It’s nothing but bravado but Sleuth is beyond desperate and he feels like he can take on all the Midnight Crew because he has to or else. He’s giving all he’s got and it’s wearing on him but he’s not going down easy.

“YOU WANNA FIST FIGHT” Boxcars bellows behind him. Sleuth figures the rest of the Crew were hiding, just waiting for Sleuth to walk into some trap. And now that it’s sprung they’re all coming out. “I OWE YA ONE SLEUTH” Boxcars says. “FOR THIS”

Sleuth turns around and his vision goes blurry and he’s pretty sure his head hits the ground because Boxcars just punched him in the nose, probably breaking it in the process. But Sleuth can’t worry about that now. He scrambles up. He’s tilting to one side but he can see a big blurry black blob and that’s all he needs. “You hit like a girl.” The words come out of his mouth before he realizes that they were probably a bad idea. Sleuth raises his fists, ready to go toe to toe with Hearts Boxcars.

==>

This is probably the stupidest thing you’ve ever done, barring taking this job in the first place.

Boxcars growls. He pulls back for a punch and throws it. Sleuth’s vision clears up just in time for Sleuth to see the punch and duck. Sleuth retaliates by punching Boxcars in the gut. Not that it actually does anything but at least he’s staying competitive.

Boxcars has a menacing grin on his face. Boxcars throws another punch. Sleuth ducks under it again. He slips around Boxcars and jabs Boxcars in his side.

“fuck it lets just beat the shit out of him” Slick says.

Sleuth spins around in the direction of Slick’s voice and gives Slick a mean left hook. Slick is sent stumbling, which makes it a simple matter of freeing him from his cast iron horse hitcher. Sleuth spins around the other way, swinging the horse hitcher in a wide arc and smashing it into Boxcars’ jaw. The big man is knocked into a crate.

Droog delivers a vicious thwack from behind Sleuth with his ultra-violence cue stick. Sleuth swings the horse hitcher around. Droog blocks the hitcher with the thick end of his cue stick, stopping the hitcher at the precise point where its momentum is most easily neutralized. Droog thwacks Sleuth across the face for his imprecision.

Sleuth throws the horse hitcher at Droog. Droog blocks it with his cue stick. Sleuth scoops up his key ring and levels it at Droog while he’s distracted. And that’s when Sleuth’s feet get swept out from under him. Sleuth lands on his back and hits his head with a heavy thud. Clubs Deuce is standing over him, crook of felony held high, ready to strike.

==>

It’s Clubs Deuce. Why is it always Clubs Deuce? He’s the king of sucker punches. The ace of trump.

Deuce strikes Sleuth in the stomach. Slick grabs his horse hitcher and joins Droog and Boxcars as they crowd around Sleuth. They’ve got their respective weapons in their hands and they’re more than pissed off enough to use them.

Ace Dick: Deus Ex Machina.

More like Ace Dick Machine, because that’s what you are. A machine.

You have lots of unanswered questions and you don’t really care about them. Problem Sleuth is getting beat up and you don’t really care about that either, but you feel obligated to help him so you do.

Ace Dick stands on the top of a crate, machine gun in hand. He’s got it spooled up and ready to fire. He’s got a wide stance and a grim look on his face like he’s posing, ready to deliver some sort of witty one-liner. “Are you assholes ready for some Dick?”

An awkward moment of silence passes. Slick looks at Sleuth. “at least theres somebody out there whos worse at it than i am huh sleuth”

“Yeah, can’t argue with that.” Sleuth says from behind his hand.

Ace Dick opens fire. The Midnight Crew instantaneously leap for cover.

Sleuth struggles to get up when a hand grabs his collar and starts dragging him away. Sleuth starts waving his hands in mimicry of punches to ward off his captor. “It is only me, Problem Sleuth.” A friendly voice tells him.

Pickle Inspector drags Sleuth behind a crate. He pops up and fires several shots at the Midnight Crew. Ace Dick is screaming like he’s lost his family and he’ll probably run out of ammunition in less than ten seconds if he doesn’t let up. It looks pretty damn cool though, which Sleuth is certain is the only thing Dick is going for.

Pickle Inspector ducks back down. “Sleuth, you’ll never imagine where I was. I was trav-”

“Not right now, Inspector.” Sleuth finally picks himself up. “We need a way out of here.” He states.

“Unfortunately the Felt have the entrance covered as you are likely well aware and as I just discovered and you need no refreshing on the situation with the Midnight Crew.”

“Relax, Inspector. I know what to do.” Sleuth says. He pops up with his key ring and fires several rounds in the general direction of the Midnight Crew. He pops back down. “Follow me. And bring Dick along, if you feel like it.”

“Ace Dick! Please accompany us!” Pickle Inspector shouts as Problem Sleuth does a huddled jog through the maze of crates. He reaches the back wall of the warehouse with Inspector and Dick close behind him. The Midnight Crew are hot on their heels, firing their weapons.

Problem Sleuth pulls out the final card he got from Clubs Deuce. He sets the timer for thirty seconds and presses it against the wall. “Take cover!” He shouts.

“droog” Sleuth hears Slick shout. “shoot the damn fuse on that thing”

“Slick, that’s not the sort of shot I can make while there’s a heavy machine gun constantly shooting at all of us with only a crate of puppets as cover.”

“god fucking dammit somebody do something” Slick shouts. “what about you boxcars”

Sleuth dodges out of the way of a spinning mace that embeds itself in the back wall, missing the bomb by inches.

“WHAT ARE YA LOOKIN AT SLICK” Boxcars says. “IF DROOG CANT MAKE THE SHOT I SURE CANT”

“I KNOW WHAT TO DO!” Deuce shouts. “PROBLEM SLEUTH, WOULD YOU PLEASE TURN OFF THE BOMB?”

Slick groans. “Sure thing, Deuce!” Sleuth shouts back.

“SEE? IT WORKED!”

Huddled behind cover, the bomb explodes, blowing a hole in the wall. Sleuth nods to Inspector and Dick. One by one they exit through the hole.

On the other side Sleuth catches sight of the Midnight Cruiser and the backup Midnight Cruiser. If the Midnight Crew’s plan had worked, they would’ve been able to make a clean getaway doing almost exactly what Sleuth is doing.

Inspector and Dick are running towards the loading dock where their cars are parked. “Hold on, there’s one more thing we need to do.” Problem Sleuth jogs up to the one of the Midnight Crew’s cars. He starts shooting the car up. If he can’t blow it up, he can make sure it’s a pain to drive.

Dick and Inspector run to Sleuth and start shooting up the cars. Inspector ducks underneath and shoots the gas tank for each one, spilling gasoline onto the concrete. Dick tears up the tires far more than necessary as Sleuth flicks open his lighter and brings it to the gasoline pouring out. A flame dashes to the gasoline spilling out of the tank and both the Midnight Cruiser and its back up erupt into flames.

==>

4/4 VILLAINOUS VEHICLES TOTALED
100% PRIMARY MIDNIGHT CREW OBJECTIVES COMPLETED
0% SECONDARY MIDNIGHT CREW OBJECTIVES COMPLETED

100% PRIMARY OBJECTIVES COMPLETED

The Felt and the Midnight Crew won’t be following you to the Sapphire of Alternia.

“Let’s get out of here.” Problem Sleuth says.

The three private detectives start jogging to their cars, occasionally turning around and firing their weapons to prevent the Midnight Crew from following them.

Midnight Crew: Say goodbye.

Problem Sleuth looks over his shoulder. He reaches for Ace Dick and throws him down.

“What’s the big id-”

A rocket sails over Sleuth and Dick and forcibly enters the trunk of Ace Dick’s car. A moment later the whole thing explodes, sending shrapnel onto Inspector’s car and burning the paint off the side.

“My car!” Dick screams.

Sleuth gets up. “At least you weren’t in it! Now move!” Sleuth shouts, propping Ace Dick up by his collar and waist.

Pickle Inspector opens the driver’s door. Problem Sleuth looks down the barrel of his tommy gun and fires at the Midnight Crew. Inspector’s car roars to life and Sleuth gets in the backseat. Inspector throws the car into reverse and squeals out of the loading dock. Dick leans out the passenger window and fires a few shots with his key. Sleuth rolls down the back window and fires at the Midnight Crew.

Inspector maneuvers his way onto the road, taking a few hits on the body of the car. As they drive off, Sleuth looks behind him. The Midnight Crew are shrinking but he can see Spades Slick glaring hellfury and damnation onto Sleuth. Sleuth smiles at a job well done.

“Sleuth, you’re paying for my car. I didn’t need to help you out with this, so it’s pretty much your fault it got blown up at all.” Dick tells him, now that they’re all safe on the road.

“I can’t afford to buy you a new car. Try getting your office in order so you can take more cases.”

“Dammit, Sleuth. You’re paying for it!” Dick shouts.

“We’ll talk about this later, Dick.” Sleuth says.

Dick quiets down after that. A mischievous smile creeps up on Sleuth’s face.

==>

5/4 VILLAINOUS VEHICLES TOTALED
1/1 DAYS MADE

Chapter Text

Problem Sleuth slowly starts to calm down. His hands are jittering slightly and his nerves are frayed and only now, after he’s safe from the Felt and the Midnight Crew and the threat of kidnapping and torture can he let himself relax. He hasn’t been in combat that intense since he was a soldier. Sure, he’d been in more than a few scrapes now and then, but never anything where he had to put everything on the line just for a slim chance of making it out a live. Hell, just calling it combat unsettles Sleuth. He doesn’t want to think in those terms anymore.

Pickle Inspector’s relating his time travel experiences to Ace Dick. Something about how he jumped at least twenty times with Sawbuck and ended up in Alternian prehistory to its medieval era to its modern times and then even into the future. The most exciting part was when he popped into some kind of palace and had to apologize profusely to a giant with spiral horns and face paint for interrupting his sentencing of a dangerous pirate and criminal with eight pupils as her captor gazed on through red glasses.

“He found that very amusing, though I did not understand why.” Pickle Inspector says, the comment sticking out to Sleuth for no reason he can discern. “I then complimented his mural and shot Sawbuck again.”

“You’re just talking about those kids, aren’t you?” Ace Dick accuses. “Because that sounds exactly like those kids.”

“I assure you I am not!” Inspector says. “Though I did meet a young girl who was excavating the palace at some point in its future. She was wearing your hat, Sleuth.”

“Huh?” Sleuth asks. He hadn’t really been paying attention to the conversation. “How could anybody wear my hat? Especially in the past. That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Anyone you recognized?” Dick asks Inspector.

“She resembled the robotic one but they obviously could not have been the same person.”

The combination of Pickle Inspector’s story and Ace Dick’s barely interested responses and the gentle vibrations of the car makes Problem Sleuth start nodding off. Before he knows it his head is drooping downward and the conversation between Dick and Inspector takes an odd turn as Monster Ace Dick starts devouring everything in sight, most of which happens to be gummy worms of various sizes and intelligences. It crosses Sleuth’s mind that it’s not as ridiculous a transformation as his waking mind would think it was.

“Sleuth.”

Sleuth’s head rocks upward as he wakes up.

“We’re here.” Dick tells him.

Sleuth opens the car door and steps outside. The car is parked near a small warehouse, not unlike the tragic casualty they just left. There are moving trucks and men in coats and hats with their sleeves rolled up carefully loading boxes of precious goods. This is Litigious Lawyer’s warehouse and these are his men.

Detective Ringleader is here. Sleuth approaches him, and Ringleader turns around and spots him. “About time you got here. Was wondering if you were ever gonna show up.”

Sleuth casually points to the commotion behind Ringleader. “What’s going on here?”

Ringleader puts his hands on his hips, sweeping his coat behind him in the process. “We’re clearing out, heading to a new location. Got a call earlier today, told me to start getting everything ready to go because some problem sleuth is gonna swing by and pick up Wealthy Quantifier’s lockbox and he’ll have every gangster worth anything after him.” Ringleader explains. “We heard the explosions, figured you had something to do with it, started loading everything up.”

Inspector and Dick walk up to the conversation.

“Hey, Dick. This where you been? Making nice with this bozo?” Ringleader asks. “Coulda used your help here loading all this junk.”

“That’s boring. I’d rather shoot people instead. The only problem with the whole thing was that someone blew up my car.” Ace Dick gives Sleuth a prolonged glare.

Sleuth rolls his eyes. He turns to Ringleader. “The sooner we get out of here the better off we’ll all be.”

“Right.” Ringleader says. He turns around. “Hey! One of you bring the courier’s lockbox over here!” He shouts.

“But you told us to never touch it.” One of Lawyer’s hired detectives protests.

“I know what I told you! Just bring it over here.” Ringleader says. He shakes his head. “Can’t find good hired help these days.” One of the detectives disappears into the warehouse and jogs out, lockbox in hand. He hands it over to Ringleader. Ringleader gives it a shake, tugs on the padlock, and then hands it over to Sleuth.

Sleuth looks it over. It’s lighter than he expected. “Thanks.” Sleuth says. “If you clear out quick enough you ought to be able to avoid the Felt and the Midnight Crew.”

“Did ya get ‘em good?” Ringleader asks.

Sleuth smiles. “They’re gonna need new cars. And a casket or two.” Sleuth dabs at his nose. It’s clotting over. “I got ‘em better than they got me, at least.”

Sleuth turns to leave. “Just curious. What’s so important about what’s in that box that the Felt and the Midnight Crew are ready to kill each other over it?” Ringleader asks.

“Are you sure you wanna know?” Sleuth looks back over his shoulder. “Think about who else they’re willing to kill.”

“Good point. Forget I asked.”

Sleuth turns and walks towards the car. Inspector gets in the driver seat. Dick takes shotgun as Sleuth hops in the back seat. Problem Sleuth watches Detective Ringleader walk to the warehouse office as Inspector starts the car and starts driving. He’s probably going to call a nervous Lawyer and report that Wealthy Quantifier’s lockbox is safely in the hands of Problem Sleuth.

Sleuth notices Inspector looking eagerly back at him through the rearview mirror. “What?” Sleuth asks.

“Are you going to open it?” Inspector asks. “What’s inside? I can not wait to see what it is. I am positively addled by excitement!”

Sleuth looks at the lockbox sitting on his lap. Property of Wealthy Quantifier is imprinted on the top of the metal box and a thick padlock is keeping it closed.

The padlock is overkill. It’s significantly thicker than the metal loop it’s wrapped around and Sleuth would have an easier time prying it off than cutting it open. On the surface of the padlock is a queen’s crown in white surrounded by gold. Wealthy Quantifier must use it for things she really wants to keep safe. “It’s locked.”

“Then open it.” Inspector instructs.

“I don’t have the key.”

“Give it here.” Ace Dick says, reaching over the seat. “I’ll open it for you, you wuss.”

Sleuth holds it away from Dick. “No, you’ll crush it.”

“Just give it here.”

“No, stop it.”

“Dammit, Sleuth, will you just-”

“Stop it, Dick.”

“Sleuth, allow Dick to open-”

“Do you remember what happened the last time?”

“That was a misfortunate accident.”

“I’ll be careful.”

“The hell you will!”

“You don’t trust me?”

“No!”

“Sleuth, please reconsider.”

“No!”

“Fine!” Ace Dick gives up and sits forward in his seat. “Be a little cry baby about it. I don’t even want to know what’s inside anyway.”

“But, Sleuth,” Inspector says. “You must be curious about what’s inside. You do want to know, do you not?” Inspector asks.

“More than anything.” Sleuth says. “But we’re not opening it up here. Until we’re somewhere safe and away from prying eyes this box is staying closed.”

“Then where to shall we go?” Inspector asks.

“My office.”

The ride to Sleuth’s office is uneventful. Pickle Inspector starts talking about his time travel experiences to a disinterested Ace Dick again, elaborating on details he suddenly remembers. Before he knows it Sleuth is wandering the desert again in tattered rags that were originally a soldier’s uniform that lost its color long ago. Two men that he recognizes as himself and Sawbuck pop into existence, begin fighting with each other, and disappear just as quickly. At the time Sawbuck sightings were a frequent conversation topic among all the exiles due to their inexplicable nature but now it seems mundane.

Penitential Scourer looks up at the sun, holding his hand to block it out of his eyesight. It doesn’t seem as hot as he remembered it to be. Several hundred years is enough time to adjust to the local weather, no matter how hostile.

“Sleuth.”

Sleuth’s head rocks upward as he wakes up.

“We have arrived at the office.” Inspector says, leaning in through the window.

Sleuth shakes his sleepiness off and steps out of the car, lockbox held at his waist.

“What’s the deal, sleepyhead? Not get your late afternoon coffee?” Dick says.

“I’m tired because the two people I brought along specifically to cover my back decided to take a temporal time out and leave me stranded with a dozen vicious gangsters and a whole lot of work to do.” Sleuth rants. “I think I’m entitled to a little shut eye.” He says, stepping onto the curb.

“I didn’t travel through time.” Dick states.

Sleuth rubs his eyes. “You got punched by Quarters. Of course you traveled through time.”

Ace Dick looks stupidly at Sleuth. Sleuth glares back. “Inspector, go check the alleyways, make sure we don’t have any guests. Dick,” Sleuth points to the roof opposite his office window with his thumb. “Go make sure Doze isn’t sitting there. If he is, toss him in a dumpster or something. I’m going inside.”

“Why do we have to-”

“Shut it, Dick, and do what you’re told.” Sleuth barks as he enters the office building.

Dick and Inspector look at each other. They shrug, and go to search the area.

Problem Sleuth ascends the stairs to his office, stomping his way up. Each step feels like it’s taking more effort than it should, like the lockbox is weighing him down. Or maybe he’s out of energy.

Sleuth steps into the office and flips the switch. The light bulb and ceiling fan turn on. Sleuth puts the lockbox on his desk and turns the blinds closed. He takes off his coat and puts it on top of his filing cabinet next to his bloodied hat.

Dick and Inspector walk in. “We’re clear.” Dick says. They walk to the desk.

Inspector is touching his fingers together. “It is safe to open the box now, Problem Sleuth.” He eagerly says.

Sleuth curls his hands into fists and leans onto the desk with them. It’s safe to open, but how? “Any ideas?”

“Yeah.”

“Shut up, Dick.”

“Perhaps it could be opened with a key.” Inspector suggests, fingers wildly tapping each other.

“I don’t have the key for the box.”

“I did not specify you required the correct key.” Inspector clarifies.

Problem Sleuth: Use key on lockbox.

You pull your revolver out of your coat and stick it in the lock. It’s a loose fit. You turn it, and all there is is a click.

Sleuth looks at the chamber of his gun. He pats his coat pockets. “I’m out of ammo.”

"You've got to be kidding." Dick rolls his eyes, pulls out his own key and takes out a single bullet. He hands it to Sleuth.

==>

You reload your revolver and stick it back in the lock. You turn it several times.

Click click. Click. Click click BLAM.

Sleuth startles backwards. This was such a phenomenonally terrible idea. As the smoke dissipates Sleuth, Dick, and Inspector all lean in to inspect the padlock. It’s completely undamaged. Jammed inside the keyhole is a bullet and Sleuth’s key. After a few pulls both pop out.

“Any other ideas?” Sleuth asks.

“Yeah.”

Sleuth groans. “Fine. Just try not to smash the damn thing.” Sleuth reluctantly passes the lockbox to Ace Dick.

Ace Dick confidently smiles as he grabs the box with one hand and the padlock with the other. He pulls. Nothing happens for a few seconds. The sounds of creaking metal then come from the box.

“Stop it, Dick.” Sleuth reaches forward.

“Wait, I’ve almost got it.” Dick protests.

“Release that immediately.” Inspector says, swatting Dick.

Dick tosses the lockbox onto the desk. The padlock remains. The corner of the box is bent inwards.

Sleuth sighs. “I’m all out. Inspector? Dick?”

Both of them shake their head.

Before Problem Sleuth, Pickle Inspector, and Ace Dick lies the most sought-after artifact on the planet. Men have fought each other for it. Men have died to protect it. Fortunes spent to recover it. Families torn apart by it. Their actions concerning it may be the most important things they may ever do in their lives.

And they can’t open the damn box.

“This is tremendously disappointing.”

Dick and Sleuth grunt in agreement.

Inspector sighs. “I trust it will be safe in your keeping if we leave you alone for the night?” He asks.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” Sleuth says. “Get some rest. And make yourselves available. This isn’t over yet, and I might need your help again, and quick.”

“Gotcha, Sleuth.” Dick says. Inspector and Dick walk towards the door to Sleuth’s office. “Good luck.” Sleuth nods as they walk out.

Problem Sleuth: Hide somewhere safe.

Only one thing to do now. Hide and hope the Felt’s and Midnight Crew’s retribution doesn’t come until the late afternoon.

Problem Sleuth walks to the group picture hanging on his wall, and lifts it off and sets it on his desk. Behind it is a safe. He spins the knob around clockwise and counterclockwise to the right combination and pulls it open. Inside is a bag of candy corn and not much else.

==>

You honestly don’t know why you even have this thing. You never seem to use it.

Well, you do know. But not the safe in particular.

Sleuth feels around at the back wall of the safe. He pushes at the bottom, and the false back falls forward, revealing a lever. He pulls it, and a small motor starts. Next to the filing cabinet, a secret door slowly swings open.

He releases the lever and the motor stops. He puts the false back back into position, closes the safe door, and hangs the group picture back up.

He flips the light switch. The light and the fan both turn off. With nothing other than filtered pink moonlight, he grabs the lock box and his coat and walks towards the secret door.

Problem Sleuth: Remember to do something.

Now that you’ve got the Sapphire of Alternia, you should probably call Wealthy Quantifier. She’s somehow very knowledgeable about your activities, so she probably already knows that you have the Sapphire. She’s probably eagerly waiting for you to contact her so you and she can arrange an exchange. You probably shouldn’t wait to do this until morning.

It’s okay. She probably doesn’t sleep. And if she is sleeping she deserves to be woken up.

Problem Sleuth puts his coat and lockbox back on the desk. He sits down and picks the phone up and puts the whole thing in his lap. He grabs the receiver and dials Wealthy Quantifier’s number. He holds it up to his ear.

The phone rings. And rings. And rings and rings and rings and rings. Sleuth slams the phone down.

==>

You’d think the mysterious broad would want her damn necklace. You’d think that she’d make herself easy to reach when she’s made it clear she’s watching your every move.

But honestly, you’re not surprised.

Looks like you’re giving it to Wallstreet Keynoter first thing in the morning. Promises be damned, at least he’s not the biggest pain in the ass you’ve ever had to deal with.

Problem Sleuth grabs his coat and the lockbox and walks to the secret door. He steps inside the narrow space and closes the door behind him. He feels around for the rungs of the ladder leading to the building’s basement and descends down.

At the bottom, he stumbles around for the cot he knows is in here, puts his coat and the lockbox next to it, and flops himself down. It creaks under the sudden weight.

Problem Sleuth stares at the pitch black ceiling for a few moments and falls asleep.

Chapter Text

Problem Sleuth wakes up to the sounds of muffled yelling and stomping. He rubs his eyes and sits up, the cot squeaking under Sleuth’s moving weight. Sleuth turns his head to the source of the sounds. He looks at the ladder leading up to his office, wondering who's visiting him at this hour. It can’t be anyone Sleuth knows. They’re much more polite around his stuff than okay so maybe it could be someone Sleuth knows.

Sleuth stands up and feels around pitch blackness until his hand brushes a string. He tugs on it and the room fills with dim light. This is Sleuth’s hideout, and unlike the Midnight Crew’s it’s actually a secret. It’s a small, bare room with unpainted concrete walls and floors. In one corner is a sink, causing mold to grow on the wall nearby, giving the room a dank, musty smell. In another is a cabinet full of dry food stuffs, in case Sleuth has to hide out for weeks at a time. In the final two corners are a cot that’s hard to get any sleep on and the ladder to Sleuth’s office.

The room used to be a maintenance closet, until Sleuth paid under the table to have the door walled over and a small vertical passage linked up to his office. The only people who know about it are Pickle Inspector, Ace Dick, and Hysterical Dame, and the last one only because Sleuth’s tried hiding from her down here before. That didn’t work out very well for Sleuth.

==>

She opened the safe, found the hidden lever, flew down the ladder and demanded some answers from you at lipstickpoint, all because she thought you were avoiding her (which you were).

Between the two of you, it’s pretty clear who the real Hardboiled Detective is.

Sleuth quietly climbs up the ladder. He rests his arms on the floor, standing on the rungs as he listens to the commotion in his office.

“Problem Sleuth?” He hears an enunciated alto. “I’ve come to collect the Sapphire of Alternia, and you are not here.”

Wealthy Quantifier? Guess she got Sleuth’s message. That’s kind of her, to come down here in the middle of the night to pick it up herself, instead of making Sleuth jump through hoops, like he expected. If Wealthy Quantifier wanted him to jump through hoops to return the Sapphire Sleuth thinks he’d shoot himself. Sleuth starts climbing down the ladder.

“He’s not here.” Sleuth stops. Crowbar. “If he was we would’ve found him.”

“I told you to be quiet!” The alto screams angrily. “I make no apology for distrusting your competence.”

“You can distrust my competence all you want, it won’t change the fact that he’s not here.” Crowbar stresses the final words.

Sleuth hears the click of sharp heels tapping across his office floor. “If you have nothing to say besides excuses then say nothing.” Snowman tells Crowbar. “Have your men search the office thoroughly.”

“There’s nothing here and this is a waste of time.”

A moment passes. Maybe enough time for Snowman to take a breath from her cigarette holder, or maybe enough time for her to shift her weight from one foot to the other. “Have your men search the office thoroughly.” She repeats coldly.

“If it weren’t for you we could’ve had the Sapphire of Alternia by now.”

The heels click rapidly towards one side of the room. Sleuth jumps back a bit as the secret door thuds with the sound of a body colliding into it. “If it weren’t for me you wouldn’t even know it was the Sapphire of Alternia!” Snowman screams. “Clearly the Felt are in dire need of a new manager of its day-to-day operations. Perhaps an individual of supreme competence and leadership who can coordinate the efforts of this band of temporal misfits into a clockwork machine of fearsome efficiency. Perhaps an individual who does not waste the advantage of numbers and functional invincibility in the face of soldiers turned private detectives. Perhaps an individual who does not meekly call me in the middle of the night only to explain that he needs a ride!”

There’s a tense moment of silence. “Why don't you hire Spades Slick.”

==>

That’s something you would say, if you were in Crowbar’s shoes.

You’ve gained a smidgeon of respect for him. Running the Felt is a thankless job, and the guy can’t catch a break.

Snowman lets out a bloodcurdling screech as the secret door thuds repeatedly.

==>

Respect ain’t sympathy, though. You’re glad to see him get beat up by a girl.

Hell, he probably enjoys it. If he had a choice in the matter he wouldn’t, but he might as well make the best of a beautiful woman’s scorn and hatred. It’s better than indifference.

Problem Sleuth: Descend.

You could listen to Crowbar get beat up all night long, but you’re tired.

If Crowbar and Snowman find your hideout, there’s nothing you’re gonna be able to do, so you might as well try and get some sleep.

Problem Sleuth quietly climbs down the ladder. He tugs on the light cord and gently lays himself down on the cot, counting on Snowman’s fury to drown out the squeaking. He stares at the pitch black ceiling, and lets the thuds against his secret door lull him to sleep.

Sleuth opens his eyes an instant later. Sleuth sits up with unusual energy. He turns himself out of bed and gets up. He tugs on the light string. He dons his hat, puts on his coat, and picks up the lockbox. He tugs on the light again and starts climbing up the ladder.

“Heya, Sleu... Oh.” He hears a voice from his office as he’s climbing. “What happened in here?” She asks.

The phone starts ringing. Sleuth gets the impression that that’s been happening for a while now. Sleuth reaches the top of the ladder and hoists himself upward onto the narrow foothold.

The woman answers it. There’s a quick pause while the other end is talking. “Have what?”

Sleuth pushes open the secret door. Persevering Maillady has his phone in hand, looking out the window and opening the blinds, morning sunlight bleeding in. Sleuth closes the secret door behind him. “Give that here.” He says as he grabs the phone out of her hand.

She turns around quickly. “Goodness, Sleuth! Where did you come from?” She asks.

Sleuth gives her a quick glance before he puts the receiver up to his ear. “Who was that?” The man on the other end says. It’s Litigious Lawyer.

“Don’t worry about her.” Sleuth says as he does a quick scan through the window.

There’s a pause. “You still got it?”

“Yeah.” Sleuth says as he closes the blinds.

“Good.” Lawyer says. “Keynoter’s waiting.” He says, more than a little expectation in his voice.

“I’ll bet he is. But I’ve got people after me, and they know you’re involved somehow. They’ll be waiting if I get anywhere near the office.”

Another pause. “Alright.”

“Just give me some time. I’ll work it out somehow.”

A deep breath and then a sigh. “I trust you, Sleuth. I know you won’t let Wallstreet Keynoter down. But be careful about it, and I’m pretty sure that means be quick about it.”

“Thanks for the tip. Keep your phone handy. I’ll call you with details.”

“Bye, Sleuth. Good luck.” Lawyer says.

Sleuth hangs up the phone. He takes a deep breath and turns around. He lets it out. Persevering Maillady is looking at him like he’s a ghost. “What?” Sleuth asks. “Is there something on my face?”

“Sleuth!” She finally says. “You, uh, surprised me. That's all”

Sleuth shrugs. “I was napping under Dick’s desk. I heard you come in.”

“I,” She starts. “I’m not sure what to say.”

Sleuth looks around his office. Snowman must’ve gotten through to Crowbar. The place is completely trashed. The drawers of Sleuth’s desk have been pulled out and emptied, the filing cabinet tipped over and its contents strewn about across the floor. All of Sleuth’s pictures have been ripped down, and the edges of the door to Sleuth’s safe have been scratched from a crowbar. There’s blood smears on the walls and more than a few dents. The desk chair is upside down, and the arm chairs for his clients are knocked backwards. Sleuth picks up his chair and sits down in it. “Well, ya might as well start somewhere.”

Maillady eyes the room. “What happened?”

“Oh, this?” Sleuth casually points to the mess. “I had visitors.”

Persevering Maillady looks at the blood smears. She nervously sits herself down. “That’s not yours, is it?” She cautiously points to the blood on the walls.

“No. They did that too.” Sleuth says. “Crowbar and Snowman. Must’ve been one hell of a romp. Wish they would’ve tried a hotel instead.”

“Sleuth,” Maillady says with a concerned look on her face.

Sleuth shrugs. “You were here yesterday. You know the Felt are after me.”

“But it only hit home just now.” Maillady slumps down in her seat. “Sleuth, you’re in real trouble.”

“What else is new.” Sleuth puts the lockbox on the desk.

Maillady leans forward and looks at the box. “What’s that?”

Sleuth looks Maillady in the eye. “The Sapphire of Alternia.” He says simply.

Maillady’s eyes snap to Sleuth’s. Her mouth is hanging open, completely stunned. Sleuth nods. Yep, that’s what it really is. Maillady carefully and cautiously grabs the lockbox. She lifts it up, giving the lockbox far more care than it deserves. “Wow.” She says as she looks it over. “It’s a lot more rectangular than I thought it would be.”

Sleuth cradles his face in his hands. “It’s inside the box.” He mumbles.

“Hmm?” Maillady asks with a small turn of her head? “What was that, Sleuth?”

Sleuth pulls his head upward. “It’s inside the box.”

Maillady tenses up like she’s just been caught doing something incredibly stupid. “Oh.” She puts the lockbox back on the table, treating it like a metal container instead of a priceless artifact. “That makes sense. That makes a lot of sense, actually.” Maillady nervously laughs.

Sleuth wants to press the issue. Why would she think the box was the Sapphire? That's downright idiotic. But Sleuth decides it’s not worth it. What would it prove? That Maillady isn’t the sharpest paper in the ream? She already knows that, and Sleuth isn’t about to rub it in.

“So,” Maillady cautiously ventures again. “Did you put the lock back on to keep it safe? Or something.”

Sleuth shakes his head. “We never got it open. We tried, too.” Sleuth points out Ace Dick’s hand print.

“Did you try the key?”

“Now, why didn’t I think of that?” Sleuth says. “I don’t have the key.”

“Are you sure?” Maillady asks.

==>

Huh.

Sleuth fishes around his coat pockets. All his coat pockets. Sleuth pulls out his key ring, several keys, a few notes, a pen or two, a notepad, and finally, Wealthy Quantifier’s key ring. He completely forgot about it. Just another piece of detective detritus that got lost as it became less and less relevant. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened though, a seemingly mundane object taking on unexpected importance as Sleuth gets deeper in a case. He’s not surprised at all. He’s tried anticipating it happening but he can’t quite seem to get it right. Sometimes mundane objects remain unimportant.

Maillady has a big grin across her face. “Now why didn’t you think of that, Sleuth?” She teases. “I guess the top problem sleuth can’t compare to the intelligence and experience of a member of the city’s fine brigade of mailwomen.”

Sleuth glares at Maillady. “You thought it was the box.”

Maillady gives a worriless shrug. “What’s worse, Sleuth? Realizing you could’ve opened the lockbox as soon as you got it, or thinking the box was the Sapphire of Alternia?”

“The box.”

Maillady giggles. “If you say so, Sleuth.”

Sleuth searches through the keys on the key ring. Most of them are house, office, and car keys. Nothing remotely out of the ordinary, except a heavy key with ornate decorations. It looks like it was meant to lock palace doors. Sleuth figured it was just a souvenir of her time as a monarch, but knowing Wealthy Quantifier, he’s not surprised about this at all either.

Sleuth spins the lockbox around so that the padlock faces him. He sticks the key in the padlock. Maillady jumps out of her seat and stands over Sleuth’s shoulder to get a good view.

Problem Sleuth: Use key.

You have never felt like this before. You feel... correct. Like you are an acolyte of an ancient and lost art of lock opening, and only now, after years of zealous study, have you finally succeeded in using a key for its proper purpose.

Opening the gates and doors of Wealthy Quantifier’s home feels amateurish in comparison.

Problem Sleuth turns the key and the padlock opens. Sleuth slips it off. He tries to open the lid, but Ace Dick’s brutishness is keeping it closed. With a little of his own, the lid comes free of the corner. Sleuth looks inside.

It’s the Sapphire of Alternia. A necklace of twelve pearls connected to a long piece of carved ivory with a brilliant sapphire set inside, all coiled in a corner of the box.

Sleuth leans in closer. The pearls, they’re not actually linked together by a thin metal chain, or a string, or anything. And the sapphire. Sleuth looks closer. It’s not actually a sapphire. It looks... cloudy.

Sleuth reaches his hand inside the box and grabs hold of the Sapphire of Alternia... and a sudden rush of protective urges, a dozen beastly desires, monstrous but nurturing, fill Sleuth’s head. Twelve different aspects, all flowing into him from his hand through his arm to his head, chilling the inside of his flesh on its way up. And finally, the knowledge of this artifact surfacing to the forefront of his mind, the knowledge of how to use it, the knowledge he always had but never needed, supplied to him by his very origin.

“Sleuth? Sleuth?” Maillady keeps asking him. “What’s wrong? What is it?”

Sleuth pulls the Sapphire of Alternia out of its box, its pearls clinking as they pull out one by one. “See for yourself.” With a thought, the ivory extends to its full size, spanning the length of Sleuth’s arm, the pearls wrapping themselves around its head in a circle just beneath the sapphire, now clearly revealed to be a sky blue disc with puffy clouds and white spirograph patterns on its surface.

Persevering Maillady gasps loudly.

==>

The Sapphire of Alternia is the White King’s Scepter.

Chapter Text

“That’s not what I think it is, is it?” Maillady says, holding her hand to her chest.

“Here.” Sleuth says, thrusting the scepter at Maillady. “Hold it if you can’t believe it.”

She takes a step backwards. “Oh, no. I’m not touching that ever. I don’t want to accidentally destroy the city because I wondered what it would be like to be a giant.”

Sleuth turns his thoughts to shrinking it down. It responds easily to commands, and shortens to its necklace form. He leans on his desk and holds it in his palm. “What the hell am I going to do with this?” Sleuth asks himself.

The door to his office opens. Transportation Deferrer steps inside. “Hey, Sleuth. I’ve got ba-” Her eyes quickly scan the room and then settle on Persevering Maillady. They narrow to a glare. “You.”

“Hi.” Maillady says with an insincere smile and a glare.

Deferrer returns it.

Just what Sleuth needs right now. “You’ve got what?” Sleuth asks.

“Just some bad news...” She trails off. Deferrer’s eyes focus on the necklace sitting in Sleuth’s hand. “Oh, Sleuth, I knew you had a thing for me, but you didn’t have to find the Sapphire of Alternia!”

Sleuth raises a brow, a mischievous smile spreading across his lips. “Well, I was gonna wait to give it to you, but you’re here now. Here, catch.” He tosses the necklace towards Deferrer.

Deferrer catches it with both hands. She stiffens up and her eyes widen. With a shout she throws it wildly away.

It bounces off of Maillady’s shirt and she scrambles to grab it. “What are you throwing it at me for?” She says and tosses it wildly back.

“Well, I don’t want it.” Deferrer says, tossing it back. Maillady steps aside, and it lands on the floor.

“Hey,” Sleuth says with a grin. He stands up out of his chair and steps around Maillady. “Be careful with that thing. That’s the Sapphire of Alternia.” He scoops it up with his hand.

“The hell it is!” Deferrer shouts with her hands on her hips. “Maybe you oughtta give a girl some warning when you toss the White King’s Scepter at her!” She says with an angry glare.

“I thought you wanted it.” Sleuth says with a smirk.

Deferrer glares. “That’s not funny, Sleuth.”

Sleuth smiles.

Deferrer crosses her arms. “So that’s the big secret. That’s why everybody’s trying to find you. That’s why you’ve been getting into so much trouble.”

Sleuth nods.

“I never thought I’d see that again.” Deferrer says. “I’m glad it’s that... small. I’m still terrified of it.”

“I’m scared of it too.” Maillady says.

Deferrer shoots an offended look at her. “Are you scared of it for the same reasons I am?”

“What?” Maillady asks as she looks at Deferrer. Then she realizes exactly what Deferrer’s talking about. “Oh, no. It’s just so powerful.”

Sleuth looks at Deferrer. “You only have to worry about who’s holding it now and not what side they’re on.”

Deferrer shakes her head. “That’s the way it’s always been.” Deferrer says under her breath.

“What’s it even doing here?” Maillady asks.

“I found it.” Sleuth says.

“No, on the planet.” Maillady clarifies. “I thought the Black King would have taken it way back when. Why is it here?”

“The Black King did take it.”

“So why is it-”

“He lost it after he got hold of it.”

“How?” Maillady asks rapidfire.

“Maybe if you’d give me a chance to talk I’d tell you.”

“Oh.” Maillady says. “Sorry.”

Sleuth takes a breath. “It was when Wallstreet Keynoter was surrendering. He handed his scepter over to the Black King. Those kids tried to grab it before he started the Reckoning, but they were too late. They still managed to take it from him somehow, but the Black King transformed and put a stop to that. They got away, but he swatted the girl trying to fly away with it. She got knocked away. The White King’s Scepter got knocked away even further.” Sleuth finishes. “That’s the last I ever saw of it. Whatever happened to it afterward is something probably only Wealthy Quantifier knows.” Sleuth turns it over in his hands a few times, lost in thought.

“You were there at the end?” Deferrer asks.

Sleuth nods. “The beginning too. Like a good Prospit Soldier.”

“Really?” Defferer asks. “You saw the whole thing?”

“Not really. I was there through the whole thing and I saw the most action of any Prospitian I ever met, barring Wallstreet Keynoter of course, but I wouldn’t say I saw the whole thing. Go ask Spades Slick about what he did while all the fighting was going on. His story’s a lot more interesting. And the way I understand, a lot more important.”

“But I don’t want to hear his story and I haven’t heard yours.”

“Oh, I have.” Maillady interrupts. “It’s a real sob story about how he lived in a sparkling paradisiacal golden city for a very long time and made lots of friends and then he was thrust into battle for no good reason and all these friends he made started dying but everybody was happy about it because it was for the King and Queen! And for Skaia!” Maillady holds her fist high with dramatic flair. “And how he got really cynical almost immediately after and that’s how he became such a good soldier.”

Sleuth has an amused smirk on his face. “That’s basically it.” Sleuth leans forward. “Let me tell ya, if I were telling it you’d be tearing up right now, ready to hold me for hours while I put on the waterworks.”

Deferrer looks unimpressed. “That actually worked?”

Sleuth stuffs a cigarette in his mouth. “’Course it did.” He says confidently.

“Not on me it didn’t.” Maillady interjects.

Sleuth stares on, ignoring the comment. “This is me we’re talking about.”

Deferrer sits down. “You don’t seem like the crying type.”

“This was before I became,” Sleuth lowers his head and raises a lighter to the cigarette. His face glows red as he puffs on it, sending smoke upward. He looks at Deferrer from beneath the brim of his hat. “Hardboiled.”

Sleuth holds his stare. Deferrer raises a brow before she shifts in her seat and crosses her legs. “Now that I know your tricks they seem a lot less impressive.”

Sleuth smirks. “Sure.” He says coolly.

“So how do you have the Sapphire of Alternia?” Maillady asks. “Now, I mean.”

“Last night some men hired by Wallstreet Keynoter handed it to me. They stole it from Wealthy Quantifier in the first place, killing that courier in the paper a couple days ago in the process.” Sleuth explains. “I’m supposed to give it back to him.”

“I thought you were looking for it for Wealthy Quantifier.”

“I was.” Sleuth says. “And I was about ready to give it to her. But it’ll be less of a headache to give it to Wallstreet Keynoter.”

“You can’t be serious.” Deferrer says.

“Why not? It’s his.” Sleuth says. “It’s the White King’s Scepter, and he used to be the White King. I’d be returning property to its original owner.”

Deferrer stands up and slams her hands on the table. “It’s a weapon, Sleuth. And a damned destructive one at that.” She shouts. “What does he even want with it anyway?”

Sleuth tosses the Sapphire of Alternia around in his hands. “He says he wants to get rid of the Felt and the Midnight Crew.”

“And how the hell is he going to do that without destroying the city in the process?” Deferrer asks.

Maillady walks around Sleuth’s desk to stand by Deferrer. “She’s right, Sleuth. You can’t give it back to Wallstreet Keynoter.” Maillady says. “You should return it to Wealthy Quantifier.”

Sleuth really didn’t need any convincing. The moment he knew what the Sapphire of Alternia was he knew he couldn’t give it to Wallstreet Keynoter. His Scepter is a devastating weapon. Normally Sleuth wouldn’t have a problem with that sort of thing; he carries several vicious arms himself. The problem is that it’s so imprecise. It’s so powerful. It’s so visible. Sleuth doesn’t want to live in a city where at a whim one man on a personal crusade can turn into a skyscraper and indiscriminately level anything in his way.

The White King’s Scepter is a weapon of war. It’s not wartime anymore, and the war the White King’s Scepter was meant to be wielded is long past.

“I know.” Sleuth responds. “But I can’t return a necklace to a dame if she doesn’t ever answer her phone.”

“Just hold onto it then.” Deferrer says.

“Are you kidding?” Sleuth asks. “I’m a dead man walking. I don’t want this thing any more than either of you do.”

"Well, maybe there's something she wants you to do."

"She has a hell of a way of showing it."

Maillday looks up into her head. She moves around the desk and starts sorting through her bag. She pulls out a manila envelope and hands it to Sleuth. “I think this is for you. I was wondering what it was and who it was for but now I think it makes sense.”

Sleuth takes the envelope. It’s unmarked, and there’s something bulky inside. He tears open the end and dumps the contents on the desk.

==>

It’s the Sapphire of Alternia.

Or more accurately, its fake.

Sleuth picks the fake up with his other hand. They’re almost identical, and to a casual, and maybe even a knowledgeable observer, they’re indistinguishable. One’s got power and subtle movement, the other feels dead and unenergetic in comparison.

“There’s something else.” Maillady is holding back a smile for some reason.

Sleuth upends the envelope again. A tube of lipstick falls out. He puts one of the necklaces down and picks it up, examining it closely. He puzzles over it. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

Maillady bursts out laughing. “You put it on your lips, Sleuth.” Maillady says.

“Yeah, Sleuth. Put some red on those lips of yours. It’s what Wealthy Quantifier wants!” Deferrer chuckles.

“It’s just your color! You’ll look great.”

Sleuth glares at the two women. He wished he hadn’t asked that question because the answer came to him just after.

==>

Well, it'll make a good present for Hysterical Dame. It’s a bit different than what she’s used to but she’ll like it all the same.

But you can't give it to her just yet. You've got to use it first.

No wait. That came out wrong. You’re not going to smear lipstick on your face. That’s stupid. The only makeup you need is black eyes. No, dammit, that’s still not coming out right.

You know what? Just forget about it.

Sleuth sighs. “I think I’m gonna shoot myself.”

The laughing stops. “Huh? Why?” Maillady asks.

“Because Wealthy Quantifier is going to make me jump through hoops to return the Sapphire of Alternia to her. Here, I have its fake.” Sleuth holds the fake in his left hand. “Here, I have the means to destroy the original.” He holds the tube of lipstick in his right hand. “It’s clear what she wants me to do.”

Maillady and Deferrer stare at him. “So you’re going to do it, right?” Maillady asks.

Sleuth slumps in his chair and sighs. “Yeah.”

The two women smile at each other like they were in league to convince him. They may as well have been.

“I can’t do it alone. I need help.” Sleuth says.

“What do you need from us?” Deferrer asks.

Problem Sleuth stands up. He grabs the Sapphire of Alternia and stands in front of Persevering Maillady. He signals for her to turn around.

“What are you doing, Sleuth?” She asks. “No, no, I don’t want it. I told you that.”

“You’re not going to destroy anything or turn into a giant unless you really want to. Now,” Sleuth says gently. “Turn around.”

Maillady turns around and whimpers. Sleuth pulls two of its pearls apart and slips it on Maillady’s neck. She shudders as the necklace comes to rest. Maillady turns around and looks worriedly at Sleuth.

“Don’t let anyone see that. Which means,” Sleuth points a finger at the exposed carapace of her chest. “Today, your buttons go to the top.” Sleuth smirks.

Maillady embarrassedly buttons up.

“I don’t know how long you’ll have to hold onto it. You think you can keep it, and yourself, safe for a few days?”

Maillady nervously nods.

Problem Sleuth grabs the fake and stands in front of Transportation Deferrer. He signals for her to turn around.

“So, what? I’m not good enough for the real one?”

Sleuth unfastens the thin chain holding the fake together and strings it around her neck. He secures it and lets it hang. “Not it at all, Deferrer.”

She turns around. “Then what is it?”

Sleuth stares at her chest. “Same deal with you.” He says. “You show too much cleavage anyway.”

Deferrer glares as she buttons up.

“You’re gonna be driving me all over the place today. It’s too risky to have the real Sapphire with me. I need it somewhere far away and safe.”

“So what? I don’t get to come with you today?” Maillady protests.

"No, sorry." Sleuth smiles. “Seems like you’ve both got things to be jealous about. I guess that means I’ve been fair.”

Maillady crosses her arms and Deferrer rolls her eyes.

“Look, I know I’m trusting both of you with a lot. But I need help now and you two are right here and if I didn’t think you could do it I wouldn’t be asking.” Sleuth says. “And I told you to keep away from me for a few days, but since you didn’t do that I guess you don’t really want to be safe, huh?”

“Not really.” Deferrer says.

“No.” Maillady says.

“Just stay away from any vicious gangsters today. Or kill them.” Sleuth says. "Everybody know what I need from you?"

The two women nod.

"Good." He starts walking to the door.

Problem Sleuth: Remember bad news.

Sleuth pulls the door halfway open. “What was the bad news?” He asks.

“Oh, that.” Deferrer says. “Your apartment was firebombed.”

Sleuth stares at the wall for a moment. He sighs. Another problem for another day. “Nothing I can do about that right now.” He pulls open the door and walks through. “Come on, let’s go.”

Deferrer and Maillady follow him out. “If you need a place to stay...” They both say as they walk down the stairs. They stop and glare at each other.

“Trollop.”

“Hussy.”

“You just keep your hands off him.”

“And what are you gonna do about it? Take a detour from your mail route and make me pay?”

“You bet I will. You’ve had it coming for a while now.”

“I’d love to see you try.”

“Nobody messes with the mail in this town. Ya wanna find out why?”

“Ya have to catch me first.”

“Ain’t so fast out of your cab. Ain’t so tough either.”

“Knock it off.” Problem Sleuth shouts to the arguing women behind him. “You can kill each other when you’re done helping me.”

There’s a moment where they don’t say anything. It only lasts a moment though.

“Way to bring Sleuth into this.”

“I did not! That was all you!”

Problem Sleuth walks outside and looks around. He sees a blue top hat on the same roof it’s always been with a vomit green cockroach sitting underneath it. Don’t they ever try anything different? Creativity probably isn’t their biggest problem though. “Deferrer, get the car ready. There’s something I need to take care of.”

Transportation Deferrer gives Persevering Maillady a sideways glance as Sleuth jogs across the street. He climbs the fire escape and exits onto the roof.

Doze comes to, and just in time. He turns around slowly. “I’m ready for you this time, Problem Sleuth.” He says with just enough slowness to be noticeable. “I’m not letting you break my radio.”

Sleuth shoves his hands in his coat. “Who said anything about breaking your radio?”

“Huh?” Doze asks. “That’s what you did the last time you climbed up here.”

“But why would I do the same thing twice?” Sleuth asks. “You’d expect it.”

“Uh.” The question stumps Doze. “Just stop right there.” He reaches for his gun.

Sleuth walks the distance between them before Doze has his hand on the grip. “You have a terrible quick draw.”

“Hey, I’m a little slow.” Doze says, his gun slowly pointing at Sleuth. “You don’t have to rub it in.”

Sleuth takes the cigarette out of his mouth. “I’m tired of you spying on my office.”

“That’s too bad.”

“So’s this.” Sleuth pushes Doze over the edge of the roof. A second later there’s a thud on the ground and frightened screams from the sidewalk. Sleuth flicks his cigarette over the edge.

==>

You’ve wanted to do that for a while now. Damn, that felt good.

Poor Doze didn’t even have time to scream. Well, more like he didn’t realize he was falling until he hit the ground.

He climbs down the fire escape and walks across the street, not bothering to look at Doze. Maillady’s standing on the sidewalk while Deferrer leans against her running cab. Deferrer’s got a small grin on her face and Maillady looks unsettled.

“You didn’t kill him, did you?” Maillady asks.

“It’s only three stories.” Sleuth says, stepping onto the curb and walking to Maillady. “He’ll be fine if he didn’t fall on his head.”

“Was that really necessary, Sleuth?”

“Yes.” Sleuth says. “Now go. Make your mail runs quick on a route you don’t usually take and then hide out somewhere for the rest of the day. With any luck the Felt won’t follow you.” Sleuth starts looking around for anything that looks a little too dark in the morning sunlight.

“Is that who you’re worried about?” Maillady asks. “The Felt?”

Sleuth doesn’t find anything. “Well, the Midnight Crew might try to follow you. If their cars aren’t still broken. They can fix them fast, but I don’t think they can fix them that fast.”

“I’m not sure leaving me with it is such a good idea.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’ll be fine.” Sleuth says. Not that he completely believes what he’s saying.

“Alright.” Maillady finally says. “Stay safe, Sleuth.”

Sleuth nods.

Maillady turns and walks away, her letter opener gripped tightly in her hand. Sleuth pulls open the back door to Deferrer’s cab and gets inside.

Deferrer enters the driver’s seat, buckles herself up, and steps on it. Sleuth is pushed back into the seat from the acceleration. “You’re putting a lot on her shoulders, Sleuth. Are you sure she can handle it?”

“What do you care?” Sleuth says as he watches buildings pass by. “She's just competition to you anyway.”

Deferrer's shoulders rise and fall as she takes a breath. “I wouldn't want her dead just because she did what you told her to.”

Sleuth looks out the window for a moment. He's worried about the exact same thing. But the Midnight Crew and the Felt should be more interested in Sleuth and Dick and Inspector than Deferrer and Maillady. And if they know what’s good for them they won’t mess with the mail. “She’ll be fine.” Sleuth says. Still, there’s a lot that can go wrong.

“I hope you know what you’re doing.” Deferrer says. She looks at Sleuth in the rearview mirror. “Where are we going, Sleuth? I knew when I woke up today I’d be driving you all over town. I stopped at your apartment, and well, you already know what happened there.”

“Who did it?” Sleuth asks.

“I don’t know.”

“So it was the Midnight Crew.” Sleuth says more than asks. If the Felt were in a searching mood they probably wouldn’t burn down Sleuth’s apartment.

“Probably.” Deferrer says. “Your cop friend was there. He wants to talk to you.”

“What about?”

“He said he doesn’t really care what you’re getting into or whether it gets you killed but if you start blowing up his city in the process it’s his business.”

Sleuth doesn’t say anything. Anarchy Repressor won’t be a problem, it’s Diamonds Droog’s pet detective that’ll give Sleuth trouble.

“He also wants to know if you’re ever gonna solve that murder or if he should just throw your ass in the slammer for it anyway.”

Huh. It looks like he will be a problem then.

“He also wants your mailwoman’s number.”

Sleuth looks forward. “What’d you tell him?”

“That I’d find it out for him myself and give it to him.” Deferrer says with a satisfied grin.

Sleuth raises a brow. “So you gave him your phone number?”

“Yeah, why?” Deferrer looks in the rearview mirror. Then it hits her. “Oh. How often does he call?”

“From what I hear, every night. And late, since he’s married to his job.”

Deferrer grips the steering wheel tightly and frowns. “Dammit.”

“You could always give him Maillady’s number.” Sleuth says. “But you’ll have to get it from her. I ain’t telling.”

Deferrer glares through the mirror. “That’s not fair, Sleuth.”

Sleuth throws up his hands in defense. “This isn’t my problem. I had nothing to do with it.” He says. “Besides, he’s a nice guy. Don’t be so quick to shoot him down.”

“But- He’s-” Deferrer groans and sighs. “Just tell me where we’re going.”

“English Performance Hall.”

Deferrer looks through the mirror with her brows furrowed together. “Sleuth, if you’re looking to commit suicide, give me a heads up so I can drop you off a mile away.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll make it out of there.” Sleuth says. “Alive, at the very least.” He adds on quickly.

“I thought we’d be driving away from all the trouble you’ve been getting into, not heading straight towards it.”

Sleuth looks into the mirror. “You’re basically working for Wealthy Quantifier now, with how you’re helping me. Sending everyone straight into trouble is how she works.” Sleuth says. “It’s part of what I have to do for her.”

She looks back expectantly. “And that is?”

“She wants me to make a show of destroying the Sapphire.” Sleuth explains. “I need an audience. That’s what we’re going to get.”

Deferrer looks forward. “I’m starting to regret this decision.”

Sleuth huffs amusedly. “Welcome to my life for the past three days.”

Deferrer starts aggressively tearing through traffic, headed downtown.

Chapter Text

Deferrer weaves in and out of traffic, runs a few red lights, cuts off a patrol car, and in no time at all, the outlandish vomit green of the Felt’s concert hall is in view.

==>

There’s no better way to tell when something just doesn’t belong in this universe than when it’s covered in garish bright green.

You wish you meant that figuratively.

Sleuth doesn’t actually remember English Performance Hall ever being constructed. He remembers that the lot was zoned, but he never saw any construction vehicles or men working or even so much as a pile of dirt ever on the property. One month it was an empty lot, the next there was a gaudy green concert hall with ornate architecture. Maybe Doc Scratch moved it from places unknown, or maybe he raised it from the ground molecule by molecule. Or maybe there isn’t really a concert hall there at all, just an illusion maintained by the omnipotent being that looks and feels very much like a concert hall. It’s always hurt Sleuth’s eyes to look at it, though it could just be the color.

The Felt occasionally put on concerts, and when they do the concerts sell out and are heralded by glowing reviews. Sleuth has no idea why. For some reason, the music critics rave about how it is a must-listen surreal experience for every acoustically inclined person in the city. Sleuth figures there’s probably intimidation or blackmail or something criminal going on with the reviews, because whenever he hears the music, he just gets sick.

When the Felt aren’t butchering music, which is thankfully rare, they use the concert hall as a base in the middle of the city. The Felt mansion lies far enough away from the city outskirts to make many criminal operations unfeasible due to travel time. If Sleuth wants to find the Felt after what he did to them last night, it’s a good bet they’ll be here.

They won’t be happy to see him, though.

Deferrer pulls up to the curb. “Come back in half an hour. If I’m not out by then, come by again in another half hour. If I’m still not out, go find Ace Dick and Pickle Inspector.” Sleuth says as he opens up the backdoor. “And don’t stop driving. Never stop driving. Got all that?”

“Yessir, Sleuth.” Deferrer says. Sleuth steps out and closes the back door. “Hold on.” Deferrer says as Sleuth steps onto the curb.

He leans in through the front window. “What’s the matter?”

“Where’s my fare?” Deferrer says with a wicked grin.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me.” Sleuth grumbles. He pulls out his wallet and opens it up. He’s got a whole dollar. In change. He closes his wallet. “You and me are on a mission to be big heroes and you’re still gonna make me pay the fare?”

“I don’t give free rides, Sleuth.” Deferrer says. “Not even for you. You have to take me to dinner first.”

“Well,” Sleuth says. “I can’t pay it anyway.”

Deferrer frowns. “Have fun with the Felt, Sleuth!” Deferrer shouts. “See ya tomorrow!” Sleuth pulls out of the window before Deferrer’s cab screeches off, leaving Sleuth in the dust. Halfway down the street she reaches her hand out of the window and waves.

Problem Sleuth turns away from the street. The concert hall is immense and imposing. It’s much larger than it needs to be, but that’s about what Sleuth expects from the Felt. He walks down the green concrete path, passing by the green garden towards the green front door. He pushes on the door, but it’s locked.

Problem Sleuth: Use key on door.

Problem Sleuth pulls his key out of his coat pocket and checks the chamber. It’s completely empty, just like he left it last night. Ammo doesn’t just mysteriously appear in a gun whenever it’s convenient.

A security guard notices Sleuth futzing around with the door. He opens the door from the inside, hand gripping a gun at his side. “Sir, English Performance Hall is closed for today and the foreseeable future. Please return when an event is scheduled.” The guard tells him.

“I got business with the Felt.”

The guard takes a breath and sighs. “English Performance Hall has no affiliation with the gang of mobsters known as the Felt. Any reports to the contrary are slander and will be contested by our legal team.” He recites.

“Are you gonna let me in or not?”

“No, please come again when an event is scheduled.”

Sleuth holds up his gun for display. “Are you gonna drop your script and talk to me straight? I got a key here and I’m running out of patience.”

The guard half-smiles. “You’re empty. Why else would Problem Sleuth bang at the door of the Felt’s concert hall when he could just shoot it open?” The guard asks. He drops his smile for his best intimidating glare. “Now scram.”

The guard pulls the door. Sleuth puts his hand in the door and grunts as it’s smashed between the door and frame. He grabs the edge of the door with both hands and pulls it open.

The guard lets go and pulls his gun. “Alright, you asked for it.” Sleuth grabs the guard’s hands and smashes the grip of the gun into the guard’s face. Sleuth twists it out of his hands as the guard falls onto the floor.

Sleuth tosses the gun aside and walks into the lobby. “You’re a dead man. You know that, right?” The guard says as he sits up on the floor.

Sleuth ignores the guard and stuffs his hands in his pockets as he walks into the auditorium. It’s big enough to hold half the city. He starts walking down the aisle towards the stage.

Snowman’s standing with her back turned to Sleuth, practicing a violin solo. Sleuth’s stomach drops as a hatred boils up inside of him. There’s a part of him that’s saying that she is the enemy and she is extremely dangerous and she must be defeated. A lot’s changed since he was a soldier, but some things stay the same.

On the stage with her is Crowbar. “No, it just happened. He’ll be fine, but Stitch has a hard time fixing broken bones, and he’ll have a harder time fixing Doze up with all the other work he has...” Sleuth hears Crowbar as if he were standing a foot away. Crowbar turns his head towards Sleuth.

“Thank you for the report, Crowbar. Please continue your work.” Snowman responds without a pause in her playing. “Is there something the matter?”

Crowbar starts moving. “Yeah. I got a promise to keep.” Sleuth hears with a delay. Crowbar hops off the stage and starts walking fast towards Sleuth. He’s got his crowbar hanging at his side.

“We need to talk.” Sleuth shouts down at Crowbar.

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

“You’ll want to hear this.”

“I don’t know what you came here for but I don’t care.” Crowbar says with fury in his eyes. “I swore you’d be dead by the end of today.”

Crowbar lifts his crowbar up high and starts running towards Sleuth. He swings it at Sleuth’s head. Sleuth flinches and closes his eyes, but the blow never comes. He opens his eyes.

Snowman’s got her hand around the crowbar. “Gentleman, please. There is no need to discuss matters in this fashion out here. Think of the carpet and how it would look to future guests if it was stained with blood.” Snowman says with a polite smile, lowering the crowbar.

“No, he needs to die. I swore he would.” Crowbar protests.

Snowman shoots him an angry look and Crowbar shuts right up. She turns to Sleuth. “It is good to see you, Problem Sleuth.” She extends a dainty hand towards Sleuth.

Sleuth looks at the offered hand. He hesitantly reaches for it. People have been beaten to death by Snowman’s hands, yet they’re probably just as graceful and unblemished as they were when she was first... instanced. It occurs to Sleuth that brutality and elegance is an odd contradiction that perfectly describes Snowman. “Likewise.” Sleuth says with a smile that seems completely inappropriate given who he’s talking to.

Snowman pulls her cigarette holder out of her coat and idly places the tip in her mouth as her other arm is folded across her chest. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your company, Problem Sleuth?”

“I just had to say hi to the only thing of the Felt with any class.”

A calculated laugh comes out of her mouth. “Oh, Problem Sleuth, you’re too kind.” She says. Her face instantly drains of any good cheer. “Come to the back.” She orders. She twists on the dagger-like heels of her shoes and starts strutting back towards the stage.

Crowbar grabs Sleuth’s elbow and it comes as a bit of a surprise. “Quit gawking. Come on.” He says as he roughly shoves Sleuth towards the stage.

“But her coat tails are so distracting.” Sleuth says. “What’s it like working with her?”

“Shut up, Sleuth.”

“It can’t be fun getting beat up by a woman. But the view has to more than make up for it.”

“Shut up, Sleuth.”

“Once you get on her good side it shouldn’t be too bad.” Sleuth says. “You’re on her good side, right? Can’t imagine what it’d be like if you weren’t.”

Crowbar takes a breath and grits his teeth. Snowman walks up the stage and disappears behind a curtain.

“So what’s it like?” Sleuth says in a hushed voice.

“Better than being with Hysterical Dame by choice.”

Sleuth laughs.

==>

That was a pretty good comeback, you have to admit.

You could almost like this guy if he hadn’t sworn to kill you.

“You’ll pay for that remark, Crowbar.” Snowman shouts in a sing-song from behind the curtain.

“Shit.” Crowbar swears through gritted teeth.

Crowbar marches Sleuth up the steps to the stage and leads him through a mess of curtains. On the other side of the stage is a bunch of dusty instruments, stacked chairs, a few tables, assorted weapons and guns, and several effigies. Stitch is busy adjusting the limbs of an effigy wearing a blue top hat, and standing in the middle of the room doing nothing in particular is Cans. Snowman is leaning to one side with her cigarette holder in her mouth waiting for Crowbar and Sleuth.

“Crowbar, I believe you had an issue you wished to discuss with Problem Sleuth.” Snowman says.

The next thing Sleuth knows his face is on the floor and the back of his head is throbbing. Not even a moment’s hesitation or a warning.

“Crowbar!” Snowman says in a mock surprise. “What are you doing? Problem Sleuth saves us the time and trouble of finding him even though he knows we are searching for him and this is how you repay his generosity? This is utterly unthinkable! I will not stand for this.” She playfully lectures.

“Are you going to let me finish the job?” Crowbar asks.

“Perhaps.” Snowman takes a breath. “It depends solely on what he has to say.”

“Hey, cut it out.” Stitch rasps. “I ain’t helping you with him if you go too far. Got it?”

“Thank you, Stitch, but your assistance will not be required for now.” Snowman says dismissively. Snowman casually points at Sleuth. “Crowbar, we can not talk to Problem Sleuth while his mouth is pressed against the floor.” She says like it was obvious.

A hand grabs the back of Sleuth’s coat and Sleuth shakily stands up with more than a little help from Crowbar. Sleuth puts his hand on Crowbar’s shoulder and faces him. “Thanks.” He says. He curls his other hand into a fist and puts it into Crowbar’s face. Sleuth turns around to Snowman. “Oh, sorry. That’s your job.”

Crowbar growls and picks himself off the floor. He wraps both hands around his crowbar and raises it for a swing. Snowman lightly shakes her head. Crowbar curses and walks to Stitch. “Problem Sleuth, why are you here?” Snowman asks.

“I came for a concert.” Sleuth looks around. “You guys still do those, right? Those instruments haven’t been used in a while, and Crowbar playing the drums on my head wasn’t what I was expecting, to be honest.”

“Do not waste my time.” Snowman snaps, eyes thinned to slits.

Sleuth thinks carefully about what to say next. Snowman isn’t angry in the same way as Spades Slick, but she’s got plenty of fury and she still treats herself like she’s a queen. An iota of disrespect is more than enough for her to break limbs and inflict pain and torture. But she’s smart. She knows when to hold back to get whatever she needs. It’s tricky to know what the line between her restraint and overwhelming retaliation is.

Problem Sleuth: Tempt fate.

“I’m not. When’s your next concert? Years go by between them and I was hoping I could convince you to put one on sooner rather than later.”

Snowman glares hellfury and damnation and daggers and all sorts of other nasty things at Sleuth. “Stitch.” She calls without breaking her glare. “Prepare an effigy of Problem Sleuth, please.”

“I already told you, I ain’t helping. I’m busy keeping this gang from falling apart.”

Snowman is simmering fury right now. “Problem Sleuth, while it appears I will be unable to implement the exotic method of torture that I personally preferred, I will remind you that I know hundreds of more mundane techniques that are equally painful that I will inflict upon you until I am satisfied by your screams if you continue wasting my time.”

“And you’re bored by torture.”

“Precisely.” Snowman says. “Do we understand each other?”

“Well, why didn’t you just say that to start with?” Sleuth asks.

Snowman stares at Sleuth for a moment. “There is one technique where I take an extremely sharp and delicate knife and carve your carapace off layer by flaky layer. The pain is not so much in the removal but the result. One victim likened it to a constant searing fire all over her body, and from what I understand the pain increased bit by bit as bit by bit was removed, if I am to gauge pain by the volume of screams.” A small menacing smile spreads across her lips.

Sleuth gives her an unimpressed look. “Is this supposed to scare me?”

“Another technique involves boiling you inside your carapace, much like the former inhabitants of this planet used to prepare shellpinchers for meals. Their technique involved thorough cooking. However, the pain caused from organ dysfunction as a result of light cooking is far worse than simply boiling you to death.”

Sleuth groans and sighs, not because he’s scared of the torture but because it’s annoying listening to Snowman drone on about it. “I’ve got the Sapphire of Alternia.”

She doesn’t look surprised. “Of course.”

“I don’t want the thing and Wealthy Quantifier can’t pay me enough money to return it to her. But I know the Felt have deeper pockets than her. Much deeper. I think you may be willing to empty them to get it.” Sleuth says.

Snowman shifts her weight to her other foot. “If it is simply a monetary issue why have you not gone to the Midnight Crew? They have more than the Felt do.”

“Oh, well, thanks for the tip.” Sleuth says. He starts turning around. “Guess we’re done here.”

“Not so fast.” Crowbar says. He walks to Snowman’s side and leans into her. “Can I talk to you?” He says into her ear.

“No.” Snowman says.

“I don’t want to suggest that you’re not perfectly capable of doing everything I do on a daily basis because you’ve made sure to make that clear on multiple occasions,” Crowbar says slightly sarcastically, “But since you’re more often than not too busy smoking cigarettes or sleeping in or just plain not interested enough to get involved in the cogs and gears of the Felt, maybe you should let me tell you how much we actually have to give away before you promise Problem Sleuth something impossible.”

Snowman’s eyes dart downward towards Crowbar as she thinks it over. They quickly return to Sleuth. “Pardon us.” She says. Crowbar and Snowman walk towards the doors that lead deeper into the concert hall.

Problem Sleuth is left standing by himself. He starts slowly making his way to Stitch. He’s having a hard time setting Doze’s limbs through the stuffed effigy and it’s showing on his face. Stitch glares at Sleuth as he puts his hands on the table. “So,” Sleuth starts. “Been busy lately?”

Stitch’s glare turns to a wide smile. “Hey, Cans. Can you believe this guy? He shoots two of us near to death and the rest of us just for fun and thinks he’s being funny when he asks me if I’ve been busy.”

“You gonna tell ‘im ‘e’s not funny?” Cans’ deep bass echoes through the whole auditorium. “Might do ‘im some good to tell it to ‘im straight.”

“Nah, I ain’t got the heart to tell him his jokes are fucking awful.” Stitch shoots a glare at Sleuth.

“What the hell did I ever do to you guys?” Sleuth asks, smirk on his face.

“Just cut it out, Sleuth. I’m busy, no thanks to you, and if you don’t get outta my hair I’ll have Cans throw you out the door and straight into tomorrow.”

“I told Crowbar to take me along last night.” Cans shakes his head. “I coulda helped out, made sure none of this happened.”

“You ain’t exactly easy to move around, Cans.”

“But I told ‘im, and then this happens!” Cans repeats.

“Where’s the rest of the Felt?” Sleuth asks.

“Out.” Cans answers.

“Hunting you down.” Stitch answers. “Itchy should’ve been around when you did this to Doze. The bastard wasn’t for some reason.”

“Why do we keep ‘im around? He doesn’t do anything.”

“You mean like a hulking brute I know that punches people through calendar years?”

“I keep asking, Stitch! But Crowbar keeps saying no. At least I’m trying ta be helpful.”

Sleuth looks at some of the other effigies. Crowbar’s got an ugly stitch over his gut, and Quarters is completely covered in crisscrossing stitches. Trace’s and Fin’s are in similar shape, and they’re soaking wet for some reason. He points at the two. “I thought I killed them.”

Stitch smiles. “You would’ve too if it weren’t for me.”

“We love this guy.” Cans pats Stitch lightly on his back. “’e keeps us alive even when we oughtn’t."

“So why aren’t they dead?” Sleuth asks.

“Do you know what happens to an effigy when a member of the Felt dies?”

Sleuth tries to think. “No.”

“Then shut up. It wouldn’t make sense to you and I’m not about to tell you our secrets.”

Sleuth glares. “So you’re cheating bastards.”

“And proud of it.” Stitch says. Stitch looks past Sleuth and points. “You’re up, Sleuth.”

Crowbar walks back from the back stage doors. Snowman emerges from a dark corner of the room and both walk towards Sleuth. Sleuth turns around and raises a brow, waiting for them to speak.

“We have considered your offer, Problem Sleuth.” Snowman says. “We have decided that, instead of paying you money, we would rather coerce the location of the Sapphire of Alternia out of you.”

Problem Sleuth reaches a hand into his pocket for the tube of lipstick-

==>

No!

It’s not like that! It's not like that at all! You don’t secretly want to know what it’s like to wear make up! Besides, you already know what it feels like goddammit just god fucking dammit all to hell.

But a crowbar smashes hard into his wrist. He can’t grab hold of anything while his wrist is throbbing. He reaches his other hand for his key but Snowman grabs his arm, twists it behind his back and forces him onto the floor. “Crowbar!” Sleuth shouts. “We’ve been through this already. You can’t force anything out of me if I don’t wanna talk.”

“Crowbar is incapable of conducting a competent interrogation.” Snowman says as she suddenly presses her knee onto Sleuth’s back, knocking the air out of his lungs. “I, however, am. Where is the Sapphire of Alternia?” Snowman shouts.

Sleuth breathlessly chuckles. “In my office safe.”

Snowman glares at Crowbar. “I told you to get that open!”

“Are you seriously falling for that?” Crowbar asks. “It wouldn’t even be in there.”

“What the hell were you two doing in my office?” Sleuth asks. “Oh, come on. Come on! I have to work there! What’s wrong with the Felt mansion? Too many people listening in? It’s gonna take forever to make sure everything’s clean.”

“Quiet!” Snowman twists Sleuth’s arm further.

“Oh, that’s right. Spades Slick is the only man for you.” Sleuth says, mouth tasting the floor. “No wonder why you’re so hard on Crowbar. He just doesn’t measure up.” Sleuth pauses. “Too compliant.”

Snowman pulls Sleuth’s head back and bangs it into the floor. “Quiet!” Snowman screams.

“I don’t get it.” Sleuth says between pained laughs. “The two of you could be ruling this town. But you’re gonna pass up total control to get revenge for a wrong centuries old?”

Snowman screams incoherently. She turns Sleuth onto his back and throws him hard into the ground. She starts throwing punch after punch at Sleuth, beating his face into the ground.

“You’re gonna kill him!” Crowbar shouts, him and Stitch pulling Snowman off of Sleuth. She shakes them off, knees Crowbar in the groin and tosses him onto the floor. She leaps back at Sleuth and bashes his face in more.

Cans grabs Snowman by her arms and pulls her away. “You’re letting ‘im get to you.” He says in a calm voice.

“I will kill him!” She screams, struggling against Cans’ unbreakable grip. “No one talks to me like that! No one! No one dares say those things to me!”

“Don’t let ‘im get to you.” Cans says.

“I am the Queen of Derse! Do not treat me like I am a tantruming child!” Snowman shouts. “Now let me go so I can kill him like he deserves!”

Sleuth blinks several times. He’s surprised he stayed alert through all of that. All things considered, Snowman punches like a woman.

“Stitch,” Crowbar says, order left unsaid.

Stitch kneels over Problem Sleuth’s head. “How many fingers?” Stitch asks, holding up three.

Sleuth rubs his face. It’s bloody all over. All things considered, Snowman still punches pretty damn hard. “I’m fine.” He says. “Should I just stay down here?”

“Get up.” Crowbar says. “If we want you on the floor we’ll throw you down there again.”

Sleuth sits up. “You know, I think I’ll just see Spades Slick about this. I think he’d be more reasonable about all of this.” Sleuth stands up and glances at Snowman.

Snowman glares at Problem Sleuth. She’s stopped struggling, but Cans isn’t letting go.

==>

Why doesn’t she just teleport out of Cans’ grip? Is this some sort of good cop, bad cop routine?

You’re not about to mention it in case it isn’t.

“Just shut up.” Crowbar says. “You came here to talk. You’ve done plenty of that already, but get to the point, would you? I think you can figure out what happens if you run out my patience too.”

“That’s funny coming from a guy who tried to bash my head in as soon as he saw me today.” Sleuth points out.

Crowbar doesn’t have an immediate response. He then smiles. “Day’s not over yet, Sleuth. Plenty of time to make good on a promise. But Felt business come first.” He says. “Let’s hear everything you’ve got to say. If I like it, I might just go along with it.”

Sleuth takes off his hat and dusts it off. He straightens his coat. “Finally, someone who gets down to business.” Sleuth says. “You bring me a hundred thousand dollars, I tell you where you can find the Sapphire of Alternia. And you can bet I’ve thought through all the details. You’ll never get to it if you even think about double crossing me.”

Crowbar raises a brow. “A hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money. We don’t exactly keep that much liquid cash around.”

“That’s not my problem.”

“And that’s a hefty price. Seventy-five thousand.” Crowbar haggles.

“Not a chance. A hundred thousand’s a bargain for what I’m offering you.”

Crowbar grimaces. “What if I just hold you hostage, round up everyone you know and torture them all for the information?”

“It’s on its way to Wealthy Quantifier as we speak. If I don’t get out of here in the next,” Sleuth mentally tallies up the time he’s spent here. “Fifteen minutes and make an appointment with a payphone, it’ll be in her hands. Once that happens, you can bet it’ll never be seen again.”

“Do not take the deal.” Snowman orders from Cans’ grip. “He is bluffing. He would never let anything that powerful come into our hands.”

Crowbar folds his arms and tosses his head towards Snowman. “She’s got a point, Sleuth. This just doesn’t seem like you.”

“I’m tired of being a hero for no reward.” Sleuth says. “You just let Snowman tell me exactly what she thinks of me. You think I want to keep letting things like that happen to me for the rest of my life? I’d rather be rich and unbruised.”

Snowman disappears out of Cans’ grip. She reappears from the front of the stage as curtains billow outward and throws her whip at Sleuth’s neck. Sleuth grabs the whip, trying to pull it apart, but it’s wrapped tight. She tugs on the end. “Liar!” She shouts. “Admit it! You have no intention whatsoever of making any deal with us.”

“Snowman,” Crowbar says, trying to get her to back off.

“What makes you so sure?” Sleuth rasps out.

She tugs on the whip until she’s breathing down Sleuth’s neck. “Because I know you, Problem Sleuth, and your reputation. And this,” She spits. “Is something you would never genuinely do.”

“Snowman!” Crowbar shouts again. He signals Stitch and Cans to get ready.

“So you think you know me?” Sleuth asks. “Would I hit a woman?”

Snowman grins. “Oh, no. You are much too respectful and chivalrous for that.”

“How about this?” Sleuth reaches a hand behind Snowman and grabs hold.

Snowman lets go of the whip with a disgusted gasp and pushes Sleuth away. She stands beside Crowbar with her cigarette holder idly in her mouth.

“That’s it?” Crowbar asks. “That’s all he has to do?”

Snowman chews on the holder for a moment and levels a vicious glare at Crowbar. “Do not dare follow his example.”

Sleuth unwraps the whip around his neck. “That’s an invitation if I ever heard one.”

Snowman breathes in and lets the remark pass. She’s still staring fury at Sleuth but her vicious rage has subsided. Crowbar eyes Snowman, searching for a prompt. “Clearly I do not understand Problem Sleuth as well as I thought. Please, continue with your moronic negotiating. Do not let me deter you any further.”

Crowbar shrugs and looks at Sleuth. “Alright, Sleuth, you’ve got a deal.”

“Imbecile.” Snowman mutters.

“Where and when?” Crowbar asks.

“Midnight.” Sleuth says. He hadn’t thought of where. He says the first thing that comes to mind. “Alternia Park. To keep you guys honest.”

Crowbar offers his hand. Sleuth grabs hold and shakes it. “I know you’re playing some kind of game, Sleuth.” Crowbar says. “We’ll keep our end of the bargain, but if you don’t, we’re done. We’re not wasting any more time looking for the Sapphire of Alternia. We’re cutting our losses, and you know what that means?”

“What?” Sleuth says tensely, already knowing the answer.

“I get to keep my promise.” Crowbar smiles grimly.

Sleuth stares at Crowbar. “Then we’ve got a deal?”

Crowbar nods. “We’ve got a deal.”

“He could have been broken.” Snowman says to herself.

“Not Problem Sleuth.” Crowbar says, turning to Snowman. “Even if we could get him to give up where it is, we’d lose our chance to get it.”

“I could have easily broken him in time.”

“At the rate you were going he wouldn’t have had a mouth to tell us.”

Problem Sleuth starts backing away. “Well, nice talking to you all.”

“Just get out of here, Sleuth.” Stitch tells him, Crowbar and Snowman occupied with an argument.

Sleuth guides himself through the curtains to the front of the stage. He walks down the steps and starts walking up the aisle.

==>

Yeah, they don’t buy that for a second. There’s no way they could, unless Snowman’s got the average intelligence of the rest of the Felt.

But that doesn’t matter. All you need is for them to show up.

He exits to the lobby. The guard turns his head towards him, surprised. “Well, I’ll be.” He says.

“What do you know?” Sleuth says. “I’m still alive.”

The guard opens a door for him. “Hope you don’t stay that way.”

“Same to you, pal.” Sleuth says as he walks out. He walks along the concrete path towards the street, trees providing little shade from the sun.

He steps onto the sidewalk and looks down the street. A cab with a cloud of smoke behind it rounds a corner, charges down the street, and does a half donut, skidding to a stop in front of Sleuth. Sleuth gets inside.

“What happened to you?” Deferrer asks as she quickly drives down the street.

He rubs his chin. Still bleeding. “You ever met Snowman?”

Deferrer gulps. “Once.” She says hesitantly. “It was the most terrifying experience of my life.”

“This sort of thing happens every time I see her.” Sleuth says. “But she’s got one hell of a strut. Seeing that more than makes up for the bloody mouth.”

“If you’d like, I can take you back there.” Deferrer says. “You know what? I think that’s what I’ll do.” Deferrer spins the wheel, throwing Sleuth into the door.

“On second thought, it’s not that great. Second only to one.”

“Oh?” Deferrer says, her eyes twinkling in the mirror. “Who takes first?”

Sleuth smirks. “Wealthy Quantifier.”

Deferrer rolls her eyes and groans. “You are unbelievable.”

Chapter Text

Deferrer takes a breath and lets it out in a loud, deliberate sigh, letting Sleuth know just exactly how annoyed she is with him. She does it again for good measure.

Sleuth mimics her while stretching his arms. “It really is a nice day today, isn’t it?”

“Oh, shut up.” Deferrer says. “Where are we going?”

“The Cutting Card.”

“You want me to drive you there?” Deferrer asks incredulously. “And for free?”

“Yeah.” Sleuth says. “What’s the problem?”

“Oh, nothing.” Deferrer says. “Just that the place is a death trap. Especially for cab drivers of hardboiled jackasses that get on the Midnight Crew’s nerves.”

“Well, I hope you’re lead foot is feeling heavy today because that’s where we’re going.”

Deferrer eyes her gauges for a second. “Not right now we’re not.”

“What’s the problem?” Sleuth asks impatiently.

“Gas.”

Sleuth doesn’t have an immediate response. “We shouldn’t be stopping.”

“One way or the other we’re stopping.” Deferrer says. “I’d rather do it while I’ve got your keys handy than without.”

Problem Sleuth doesn’t have the heart to tell her that he’s completely out of ammo.

Transportation Deferrer pulls into a gas station. There’s only one empty spot and Deferrer grabs it before the man who was patiently waiting for it could take it.

“Hey! That was my spot.”

Deferrer blows the man a kiss and winks. She turns off the car and steps outside quickly before the attendant can put the hose in. “Hey, what do you think you’re doing? Stop that.” She says. “None of the cheap stuff.”

Problem Sleuth opens the door and steps outside. He walks around the car towards the station.

“Where’re you going?” Deferrer asks.

“To wash up.” Sleuth responds.

“What if there’s trouble?”

“Run into the little girl’s room. Only mobster who could follow you there is Snowman.”

Deferrer huffs. The attendant is staring at her wide-eyed. “What? You never seen Problem Sleuth before?” She says. “Pump my gas already.”

“You mean that’s Problem Sleuth?” Sleuth hears the attendant ask as he walks inside the station store. He walks past rows of junk food and into the bathroom. He steps in front of a sink and looks into the mirror.

==>

Just what your face needed. The dried blood around your mouth accentuates your rugged jaw and the scabbing gashes on your lip speak to your toughness.

What would really highlight your attractive jawline is a little lipstick oh fucking goddammit is it something about this tube of lipstick that makes you think these thoughts? This is getting out of hand. The sooner you get rid of thi-

A man steps into the bathroom, and sees Problem Sleuth gazing at the tube of lipstick intently. Problem Sleuth looks at him and stares him down. He backs out of the room quickly.

==>

You’re really glad you don’t know that guy. If it was someone you knew you’d probably have to beat them so they can’t speak again.

You put the lipstick away and wash your face. With any luck the Midnight Crew won’t wonder why you’ve got blood on your face and ask who you’ve been talking to. Because Spades Slick’ll be pretty jealous if he finds out you talked to Snowman before him.

You swear, it’s like a messy break up between the two, except they’re fighting not just over who gets the mutual friends but the mutual enemies too.

Problem Sleuth puts his hat on the sink counter and turns on the faucet. He splashes water onto his face and scrubs his wounds. Pink tinged water flows into the sink. He grabs a paper towel and starts drying his face.

The door opens and Sleuth is mildly surprised to see Anarchy Repressor walk through it. “Sleuth.” He says, hands on his hips. “I’ve been looking for you.”

Sleuth looks Repressor over. He looks ridiculous. “How’d you find me?” Sleuth asks as he keeps drying his face.

“I spotted Persevering Maillady along her route and asked her about you. She said you were with that whore cab driver of yours.”

“Her words?”

“Yep.” Repressor says. He starts smiling. “Do you know how easy it is to find Transportation Deferrer? She’s like a boat through water. She leaves a wake. But with her it’s traffic jams and car accidents.”

Sleuth throws the towel in the trash and puts his hat back on his head. “What do you want, Repressor?”

“We need to talk.”

“Get in line.” Sleuth says. “The Felt and the Midnight Crew get first crack at any hardboiled detectives. Sorry, Repressor, cops finish last.”

Repressor walks up to a urinal and starts doing his business. “You hear about your apartment?”

Sleuth nods. “Yeah.”

“Couldn’t have happened to a better person.”

Sleuth stares down the back of Repressor’s head and grimaces. “You didn’t come find me to tell me something I already knew. What do you want?”

Repressor waits to answer. “Why are you blowing up my city?” He asks.

“I’m not blowing up anything.”

“So that warehouse halfway across town just burned itself down?” Repressor says. “It didn’t have a lick of help from anybody else?”

“What the Felt and the Midnight Crew fight over isn’t any of my business.” Sleuth shrugs, even though Repressor isn’t looking. “I don’t know why they’re fighting over a warehouse of suggestive puppets, but they obviously couldn’t let the other have it if they couldn’t get to it first.”

Repressor finishes and zips up his pants. He walks to Sleuth and puts his hands on his hips, a serious look on his face. “I think it’s time you level with me.” He says. “What’s really going on?”

Sleuth shakes his head. “You don’t want to know about this, Repressor. I was looking out for you when I didn’t tell you. You were looking out for yourself when you agreed.”

“Just tell me.”

“Alright.” Sleuth says. He checks under the stalls and eyes the door. “Is the dirty cop in your squad around?”

“He’s giving your cab driver the mother of all traffic citations.” Repressor says with a small smile.

She’s not going to be happy about that. “You know, she was hoping you were gonna call her and ask her out, with how she gave you her number.” Sleuth says. “Guess she knows now you’re not interested.”

Repressor’s smile turns into a crestfallen look. An opportunity lost that he never knew he had. He sighs. “Just get on with it.”

Sleuth takes a breath, preparing himself to tell Repressor the big revelation. “I’ve been looking for the Sapphire of Alternia this whole time.” Sleuth says. “And what’s better, I’ve got it.”

Repressor is taken aback for a few moments. “Damn.”

“It gets better.” Sleuth says. “But tell me, you still wanna know?”

Repressor moves his head from side to side. “Hit me, Sleuth.”

“The Sapphire ain’t just a pretty necklace.” Sleuth says.

Repressor takes a step back. He starts shaking his head. “No. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know about any secrets Wealthy Quantif-”

“The Sapphire’s the White King’s Scepter.”

“Dammit, Sleuth!” Repressor says as he turns around to face the wall. He puts a hand to his temple. “Tell me you’re not serious, Sleuth. Tell me, because if you’re not pulling my leg that’s the worst news I’ve ever heard.”

Sleuth shrugs. “Skaia’s honest truth.”

Repressor paces the bathroom. After a few times back and forth he stops. “I told you not tell me.”

“You wanted to know.”

“Not after you told me the Sapphire’s more than just a jewel.”

“The curiosity would’ve eaten you up.”

“I would’ve lived.” Repressor says. “I’m a cop, Sleuth. I make a living not being curious.”

“And wouldn’t you know it.”

“Yeah, I would.” Repressor wipes his mouth and alternates his stare between the floor and the ceiling. He turns his stare to Sleuth. “The Scepter?”

Sleuth nods.

Repressor adjusts his stance, leans on one foot, and points at Sleuth. “I don’t want that thing in my city. I don’t care what you have to do, just make sure it never falls into the hands of anybody who’d think about using it. Got it?”

Sleuth folds his arms. “So are you gonna back off of me?”

Repressor puts a half-smile on his face. “Are you kidding? I’m never talking to you again.”

“Ah, that’s a shame.” Sleuth says. Sleuth’s face turns serious. “I could really use a favor.”

“Not gonna happen, Sleuth.” Repressor says. “You’re on your own.”

Sleuth steps forward and looks Repressor right in the eye. “I’m calling in every favor you ever owed me.”

“Not what I said.”

“You owe me. Hell, for all the work I’ve done for you pro bono,” Sleuth stresses with two forceful jabs into Repressor’s chest, “I deserve a mansion and a penthouse apartment.”

Repressor throws his arms to his side. “That’s not our working relationship, Sleuth. I lean on you for favors, I never pay them back. It works out great this way. Now you wanna shake this up. Why would you wanna do something like that?”

Sleuth grabs Repressor by the collar with both hands. “Dammit, Repressor!” Sleuth says in a hushed shout. “I’m asking you for help!”

Sleuth stares at Repressor as he stares right back. Slowly, a look of understanding crosses his face. Repressor relaxes. “What is it?”

Sleuth walks to one end of the bathroom and back to Repressor. “I’m trying to get the Felt and the Midnight Crew together in one place.”

Repressor raises a brow. That’s got his attention.

“Think of how good you’ll look in the papers and in the force when you crash the party.”

Repressor looks pretty interested now. “I think I might be able to help you out with this, Sleuth.” He says. “But what do you want our help for?”

“I’m a dead man if you don’t show up.” Sleuth says. “I can’t get away after I do what I need to without calling in the cavalry. I need a lot of backup, and Dick and Inspector won’t cut it. Not against both the Felt and the Midnight Crew.”

Repressor thinks Sleuth’s answer over for a second. “Weren’t they with you at the warehouse last night?”

“Yeah, but Crowbar and Spades Slick wanted me alive. And I had a warehouse to hide in.” Sleuth says. “I’m not gonna be that lucky this time.”

Repressor nods in acknowledgment. “Where and when?”

“Midnight. Alternia Park.” Sleuth says. “You’ve gotta bring everything. And I really mean everything. It’ll be good for all your lazy cop friends to take a walk in the park. Especially if they’ve all got tommy guns.”

Repressor narrows his eyes in thought as he thinks about the details. “This’ll be hard to keep quiet.”

“Well, you damn well better try. There has to be people you can trust who can keep things quiet.” Sleuth says. “I could probably name a few people in the force for you.”

“No, I know who they are. But the list’s short.” Repressor says. He looks up at Sleuth. “The thing you don’t realize about cops is that for how lazy they are they can be pretty damn nosy.”

Sleuth pats Repressor on the shoulder. “Don’t you practically run the force anyway?” Sleuth asks. “You’ll think of something.”

Repressor chuckles. “So just pull something out of my ass, like you?”

“Just like me.” Sleuth smiles.

“Alright, Sleuth. Wish us both luck.” Repressor walks away. He puts his hand on the door.

Problem Sleuth: Think quickly.

That’s one problem solved, and another piece put in place, but Repressor’s gonna have a hell of a time keeping his dirty man occupi-

His dirty man.

“Hold on, Repressor.” He says.

Repressor turns around. “What?.”

Sleuth breathes in. He’s really not looking forward to asking this from Anarchy Repressor. “I need you to cuff me and lead me out of here.”

Repressor raises his brow as far as it can go, and then some. “Sleuth?” He asks.

“I can’t let your dirty man know you’ve been making plans with me.” Sleuth explains. “So, you gotta cuff me and lead me out of here. And then I’m gonna get away, and everybody thinks you’re after me and your dirty man doesn’t tell the Midnight Crew we made any plans.”

Repressor pulls out a pair of handcuffs. He looks at Sleuth with a giant smile on his face. “I’ve always wanted to do this.” He grins eagerly.

“Hold on hold on hold on hold on hold on.” Sleuth says. “Your dirty man isn’t gonna believe that I went down without a fight.”

Repressor shows his teeth behind his wide grin. “This keeps getting better and better.” Repressor pulls back for a punch.

“Whoa!” Sleuth shouts. “I can already sell that I’ve gotten beat up. It’s you who needs some work.”

“Sleuth,” Repressor says. “Hell no.”

“This is how it’s gotta be.”

“I can take you on in a fight.”

Problem Sleuth & Anarchy Repressor: Work out details.

You both maintain that you can beat each other up without so much as suffering a bruise. You both claim the other is full of false bravado, but secretly, you both know that Problem Sleuth can kick both of your asses without so much as a bloodied knuckle that’s an awful lie Sleuth and you know it the hell it is prove it Repressor.

You both decide that the best course of action to decide who can beat up the other is to come to blows over it.

Sleuth dabs at his bloodied lip. He just cleaned this thing. “I think that’s enough.”

“Yeah.” Repressor agrees, dabbing his bloodied temple. Repressor pulls out his handcuffs. Sleuth turns around and he slips the cuffs onto his wrists. Repressor grabs Sleuth by the arm and pushes him out the door.

Repressor leads Sleuth outside of the gas station. Repressor’s dirty detective walks away from an incredibly annoyed Deferrer and towards Sleuth. “So you didn’t need help after all.”

“I told you I could take him.” Repressor says with a huge grin on his face.

“How about you take these off and try again.” Sleuth says.

“Shut up, Sleuth.” Repressor says. Repressor passes Sleuth to his detective and walks up to Transportation Deferrer with a confident smirk on his face. “You know, I was thinking.” He takes the citation from Deferrer’s hands. “How about we just forget about this?” He holds it up.

Deferrer’s annoyed look turns into a coy one, sensing opportunity.

“Captain,” The dirty detective says. “What the hell?”

“I couldn’t possibly let you do something like that for me, Anarchy Repressor.” Deferrer says seductively.

“Well,” Repressor says. “It is entirely up to me.”

“But that would be against,” She says with a small pout. “The law.” She says breathily.

Repressor instantly tears up the citation.

“Seriously, Captain.” The detective says, releasing his light hold on the Sleuth’s cuffs. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Shut the hell up.” Repressor barks at the detective.

“What you’re doing is unethical.”

Repressor turns to the detective with fury in his eye. “Unethical?” He roars. “You want to talk to me about ethics?”

“I don’t know, Captain.” The detective says angrily. “Seems like you’re letting a menace to the road get off scot-free ‘cuz she batted her shiny eyelids at you. That seems pretty unethical to me.”

Repressor and his detective start arguing bitterly.

Deferrer looks at Sleuth completely confused.

Sleuth tilts his head towards the cab.

Deferrer shrugs and enters the driver’s side door.

Sleuth stealthily turns away from the argument and opens the back door to the cab with his hands behind his back.

“Hey!” Repressor finally notices Sleuth’s less than stealthy escape.

Sleuth jumps inside. Deferrer starts the cab and hammers down the accelerator. She roars the engine, telling Repressor and his detective to get out of the way.

Repressor gives way. “I’ll call you!” He shouts as Deferrer rapidly drives past.

Anarchy Repressor's Dirty Cop: Wonder if you seriously just let Problem Sleuth get away like that.

Did you seriously just let Problem Sleuth get away like that?

Because it looks like you seriously just let Problem Sleuth get away like that.

You are such a disgrace. Not because you get a monthly check from Diamonds Droog, but because you're terrible at pretending to be a cop.

Deferrer looks through the mirror at the two cops. “That was odd.” Deferrer says as she drives out of the station. “Do things like this happen often to you?”

“Only with the police.” Sleuth says. “Everybody else just beats me half to death.”

Deferrer blinks a few times. “How did your cop friend even get cuffs on you?”

“Same way you got out of the mother of all traffic citations.” Sleuth says. “By asking him nicely.”

“But how did that even happen? I’ve got enough traffic violations to fill a phone book. I don’t know why he gave it up.”

“I may have implied that he totally blew whatever chance he had with you by letting you get that ticket.”

“Oh.” She says. It’s apparently not what she expected.

Sleuth picks up on it. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” Deferrer says, dissatisfied. “Just tell me I don’t have to be nice to him now.”

“It’d be the graceful thing to do.”

Deferrer scoffs and rolls here eyes.

Sleuth struggles with the handcuffs for a few seconds.

“You need help with those?”

“No, I got them.” Sleuth pulls Repressor’s billy club from behind his back and spins the handcuffs around his finger. “Besides, I don’t think we’re on the same page about exactly what helping me with these handcuffs involves.” Sleuth says with a smirk.

Deferrer looks through the mirror with a subdued smile. “You mind if I-”

“I’ll hold onto them.” Sleuth stuffs the handcuffs in his coat pocket.

As the car drives down the street. Sleuth catches a glimpse of what looked like two men in a car watching him, but before he can look back they’re out of sight.

Chapter Text

“The Cutting Card?” Deferrer asks.

Sleuth nods.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.” Deferrer says.

“What? It’s not like you have to go inside.” Sleuth says. “You shouldn’t anyway. All the slots are rigged and the dealers cheat.”

“That’s not my point, Sleuth. The whole neighborhood is crawling with Slick’s thugs and Droog’s informants and Boxcars’ whores and Deuce’s ice cream men.” Deferrer says. “I get nervous when I drive there for normal fares. But right now I’m driving you, Sleuth, and you’re the most wanted man among thugs and murderers.”

“So what are you worried about?” Sleuth asks bluntly.

“Are you really this stupid?” Deferrer asks angrily. “Do you really think you’re the only one going into danger here?”

Sleuth opens his mouth but Deferrer doesn’t give him the chance to speak.

“What if they see me dropping you off and stop me somewhere else? The streets are designed to make it hard for cars to get through.”

Sleuth just waits.

“And I’ve got this fake king’s scepter hanging around my neck that’s still a priceless piece of jewelry and I’m taking it into a neighborhood full of criminals and you wanna ask me what I’m worried about?” Deferrer finishes and looks through the mirror intensely at Sleuth. “How about my life!”

Sleuth stares back.

“I can’t imagine what your mailwoman must be going through, what with the real White King’s Scepter hanging around her neck. And she’s not nearly as steely eyed about all this hardboiled nonsense as I am.”

“Pull over.” Sleuth says. “If you’re scared, just pull over. I’ll make it where I need to on my own.”

“Sleuth,” Deferrer says quietly.

“Well?”

Deferrer looks in the mirror. She doesn’t have anything to say.

“I never pretended this wasn’t going to be dangerous.” Sleuth says. “You said you didn’t care. You should’ve told me you did.”

Deferrer’s got an angry look on her face. “Don’t talk down to me, Sleuth. I’ll take you straight into hell. I won’t even complain about it.” She says. She shoots a terrifying glare into the mirror. “Happy?”

“Yeah.” Sleuth says. He’s not, really. He really didn’t want to have to do that to Transportation Deferrer, but he’s got places he needs to be. “Look,” He starts to apologize.

“No.” She says firmly.

That’s that, then.

Problem Sleuth and Transportation Deferrer sit in angry silence as she drives him to the Cutting Card Casino. It’s deep in a seedy but wealthy district of town. It’s filled to full with bars, clubs, restaurants, brothels, speakeasies, drug houses, and any number of other vices that can be sold along with a fancy place to sell them.

The Midnight Crew put a lot of money into the neighborhood, and their investment pays off. Compared to the Midnight Crew, the bankers in downtown earn a pittance making an honest living. As the rebellious elite of their former kingdom, the neighborhood’s earned a name they’re probably not too happy with: New Derse.

True to Deferrer’s word, the place is a maze of tiny two lane streets, and as a result foot traffic is the preferred method to get around. The streets serve an additional purpose than causing potential customers to walk past something they might be interested in. If the Midnight Crew ever need to withdraw to some place absolutely safe, all they need to do is head to their casino while their army of thugs and employees slow any enemies down and give them plenty of warning. All along the way as Sleuth and Deferrer drive, men give Sleuth dirty looks and women give him purrbeast calls. It’ll be a miracle if the Midnight Crew don’t already know Sleuth is on his way.

The Cutting Card Casino is immense and ornate and elaborate and impressive.

==>

You’d think a casino painted black wouldn’t draw so many customers. It’s the middle of the day and it feels dark out.

No expense was spared when the casino was built. Dozens of architects made dozens of drafts, each rejected until all restraints of reasonableness were discarded. Then, the Midnight Crew scrutinized them until they met their demanding standards of size, opulence, and above all else, whether an imposing enough symbol of their presence and power in their city. They succeeded. Overwhelmingly. The casino is one of the iconic silhouettes in the skyline of the city, and it sits in opposition to the skyscrapers in downtown.

==>

They’ve even got trees out here. Trees. Nothing says power like smuggling away a few specimens from a completely altruistic attempt to restore the planet funded by well-intentioned socialites.

Just to decorate a casino.

Deferrer slows down. Traffic is backed up a ways away from the casino. “Time for you to get out, Sleuth.” Deferrer says. “No way I’m getting near that place.”

All things considered it’s probably the best course of action. “Kicking me to the curb already?” Sleuth asks.

“Yes.” Deferrer says. “Get the hell out.”

“Sheesh.” Sleuth steps outside. Deferrer pulls the tightest u-turn Sleuth’s ever seen and drives away from the casino.

Sleuth starts walking. The sidewalk’s filled with all types of people, some headed away, but most headed towards the casino. Businessmen, gangsters, cops, factory workers. It’s the ultimate attraction in the city, which is exactly what it’s marketed as.

Sleuth makes his way through the thick throng and eventually ends up at a grand spades-shaped archway. He looks at the line of people waiting to get in. He walks past them all and muscles his way through the front doors.

The casino manager spots him making his approach. He summons two burly security guards and they block Sleuth’s way to the main floor of the casino. All eyes focus on him.

“Problem Sleuth, you know our longstanding policy concerning you.” The manager says. “Leave now or be forcibly escorted off the premises. We do not allow cheaters and troublemakers to disrupt the operations of this casino.”

“Yeah!” A man from the line shouts at him. “Wait your turn like everybody else!”

Sleuth ignores the peanut gallery and tucks his hands in his pockets. “I’m here to see Spades Slick.” He says to the manager.

The manager curls his wrists inwards and places them on his hips. He turns his head up slightly. “No one sees Spades Slick. Spades Slick sees them.” He says haughtily. “Now leave.”

Sleuth takes a quick glance at the line behind him. “You remember the last time you tried to keep me outside?”

The manager slumps slightly forward. He raises his hand and snaps his fingers twice. Two more security guards walk to the manager and flank the two guards already present. “Yes.”

Sleuth sighs. “I’m not leaving until I see Spades Slick.”

“Guards.” The manager orders.

One of the guards grabs Sleuth’s wrists.

“Let me go or I’ll ruin that nose of yours.” Sleuth says. He suddenly gives a friendly smile. “Oh, hi. You must be new. I don’t think I’ve broken your nose yet. It’ll be a pleasure.”

The guard is unimpressed. “Sure.” The guard says. He tugs on Sleuth’s arm.

Sleuth floors the guard with a quick jab. The crowd gasps.

Another guard wraps around Sleuth’s waist and tries to push him to the floor. Sleuth bashes the guard in the back of his head with his fist and loosens an arm around his waist. He throws the guard downward onto the floor and kicks him in the ribs.

The third guard pulls a gun. “Stop.” The guard orders.

Sleuth takes a quick step and pushes the guard’s hand upwards. The gun goes off, firing into the ceiling to screams from the crowd. Sleuth takes the gun out of his hand and punches the guard twice in the nose.

He points the gun at the fourth guard. “How much you wanna bet I know how to use this better than he does?” Sleuth says with a toss of his head at the third guard.

The guard’s hands shoot up.

Sleuth slams the gun on the casino manager’s podium and leaves it there. “When are you going to learn you can’t keep me out of here?” He says to the manager.

The casino manager has his wrists on his hips. “As if I truly expected four guards to stop you. As if Spades Slick expected the same.” The manager shoos Sleuth inward. “Go. You’ve earned your entrance in your typically brutish ways. Leave me be.”

“Thanks.” Sleuth says insincerely. Sleuth walks away from the casino manager to the main floor of the casino amidst jealous shouts from the line behind him.

“He is a special guest of the casino!” The manager attempts to explain to the angry crowd behind him.

Sleuth looks over the main floor. Gambling, gambling, gambling. There are at least twenty rows of slot machines, dozens of tables full of every card game, roulette tables, crap tables. There’s a constant consonant hum from all the slot machines playing their jingles at once and low murmuring from the patrons and excited shouting from the dealers and casino staff and occasional jackpot winner.

The lighting’s dim, partly to provide atmosphere, partly to make it easy for the Midnight Crew to sneak around the casino. It’s a long sprint from the main entryway to any sort of cover. The tables are thick and heavy, making it easy for short guys with knives or bombs to do flank attacks, and the slot machines are hardly any protection when crack shots can pick off any stragglers in between the long rows. The casino strikes Sleuth as incredibly defensible. Not surprising. It looks like a casino, but it’s really the fortress for the Midnight Crew.

Sleuth waits around a minute or two in case anybody’s home.

==>

One benefit to being the biggest pain in the ass in the city is that nobody makes you wait for very long. You wish you could say they were being polite.

You don’t know what’s going on now, though. You haven’t been forcibly escorted off the premises by someone who isn’t a complete chump yet. You’ve been waiting for, what, thirty seconds? It doesn’t take this long.

With nobody to attend to him Sleuth walks to the blackjack tables and pockets a few chips from a rich patron who isn’t paying close enough attention. He sits himself down at a nearby table. The dealer glares at him.

“Hello, sir.” The dealer says. “The game is blackjack.”

“Do I look blind to you?” Sleuth asks, sarcasm dripping from every word. “Do I look like the kind of guy who wouldn’t know a game of blackjack when I saw it?”

“Apologies, sir.” The dealer says. “But I had to make sure.” He says with a snide grin.

“Just deal the cards. And play fair.”

“We only know fair play at the Cutting Card.”

“Of course.” Sleuth pushes his chips forward. The dealer hands out cards. Sleuth gets an Eight of Hearts. Then his next card comes. The Jack of Spades.

==>

You hate that card.

It’s unlucky.

“Stand.”

The dealer reveals his cards. The King of Spades and the Ace of Spades.

“Cheater.” Sleuth accuses.

“The house wins.” The dealer says with a malicious grin. He takes Sleuth’s chips. “Always.” He points behind Sleuth.

Sleuth turns around in his chair. Spades Slick and Diamonds Droog are standing behind him. Both have a card ready in their hands.

“Are you the manager? The owner?” Sleuth asks. “I think your dealer’s a cheater here.”

“Really.” Droog says impassively. “Thanks for bringing that to my attention.”

“what the fuck are you doing here sleuth”

“What took you so long?” Sleuth asks. “What’s got you keeping me waiting?”

“oh nothing” Slick says. “just looking for you”

“And everyone you know.” Droog adds.

“didnt think i should look in my own casino. was the furthest thing from my mind” Slick says. “i thought to myself that problem sleuth would never be that stupid” He says with a creeping grin.

Sleuth lets the insult pass. “I came to talk.”

“good” Slick says. “we want you to talk. not all we want out of you though”

Sleuth has a pretty good idea of what Slick’s got on his mind. “I came to make a deal.”

“We’re not talking about it out here.” Droog says.

“yeah” Slick says. “bloodll probably scare the customers”

“Move it, Sleuth.” Droog says with a silenced pistol pointed at Sleuth. “The back rooms.”

“The back rooms where your staff works?”

“no” Slick says. “the back rooms where we work.”

An important distinction. The difference between life and death. Sleuth gets out of his chair and gets moving.

Droog’s and Slick’s walkie-talkies crack behind Sleuth as he walks through the main floor. “DROOG” Sleuth hears Boxcars shout with some interference.

“You find her?” Droog asks.

“NO” Boxcars says. “WELL YEAH BUT”

“But what?” Droog asks.

“THE SCRAWNY GIRL PULLED A SWORD ON ME”

Sleuth keeps himself from completely tensing up.

Droog takes a moment to process that. “You’re bigger than her.”

“WELL” Boxcars starts. “I GOT A BAD FEELING ABOUT THE WHOLE THING SO I JUST LET ER GO”

“a bad feeling” Slick butts in with his own walkie-talkie. “shes a tiny mail carrier what the fuck are you afraid of”

“This sets us back, Boxcars.” Droog says. “We need to find every friend of Sleuth to find out what they know and to use them as leverage agains-”

“SHE JUST ABOUT CUT MY DAMN HEAD OFF. AND I EVEN GOT THE DROP ON HER” Boxcars screams. “I DIDNT WANT TO GIVE HER ANOTHER CHANCE SO I GOT THE HELL OUT OF THERE”

“what the fuck boxcars” Slick shouts.

“You’re never living this down.” Droog says.

Sleuth opens a pair of double doors and walks through the kitchen. The kitchen staff must be used to this sort of thing happening because they barely even acknowledge Sleuth or Droog and Slick behind him.

“SHE REALLY WAS REALLY SCARY!” Deuce cracks in. “BOXCARS SAID IT WAS LIKE HE WAS WALKING OVER HIS OWN GRAVE. I THINK IF BOXCARS SAYS SOMETHING LIKE THAT SHE PROBABLY IS REALLY REALLY SCARY.”

“SHUT UP YA RUNT” Boxcars yells. “YOU WANTED TO SAY HI TO HER”

“Maybe you should have.” Droog says. “You could’ve nabbed her.”

“YER ONE TO TALK” Boxcars says. “HOWS FINDING SLEUTH GOING” He taunts.

Sleuth can’t see Droog, but he can guess he’s got something almost approaching a smug grin on his face. “Pretty well, I’d say.”

“hey sleuth” Slick asks. “you tell maillady to cut boxcars head off today”

“I haven’t talked to her today.” Sleuth says. “Why are you messing with the mail?”

“WHAT” Boxcars asks. “IS THAT SLEUTH”

“yeah”

“WHATS HE DOING THERE”

“good question” Slick says.

“He just showed up, as far as we can tell.” Droog says.

“IS HE STUPID” Boxcars asks. “LIKE I PUNCHED HIM TOO HARD IN THE HEAD STUPID”

“who knows” Slick says. “who cares”

Sleuth exits the kitchen to a bare corridor busy with employees. He walks to a door and heads inside. A narrow staircase heads up to the second level. He starts walking up.

“Where’re you and Deuce?” Droog asks.

“JUST OUTSIDE THE CASINO!” Deuce pipes in.

“WE STOPPED SLEUTHS CAB DRIVER” Boxcars explains.

Dammit. At least Maillady got away.

“YOU WANT ME AND DEUCE TO ROUGH HER UP”

“nah we need everyone for sleuth” Slick says. “if he doesnt talk well talk to her”

“Four men to handle one?” Sleuth asks.

Slick ignores Sleuth.

“Leave her with security for now.” Droog instructs.

“GOTCHA” Boxcars says. “WELL BE UP IN A MINUTE”

Sleuth walks through the door at the top of the staircase to another bare corridor. This one leads to the offices for the white collar casino employees. Sleuth walks down the corridor. A man with a pocket protector fearfully stands aside as Spades Slick and Diamonds Droog walk past.

“the fuck are you looking at” Slick snaps.

“You have yesterday’s earnings yet?” Droog asks as he walks past.

The man nervously looks between Slick and Droog. “N-n-no, not y-yet, Mr. Diamonds Droog, sir.”

Droog’s mouth curls imperceptibly downward. “Get that to me by the end of the day.”

“or else” Slick laughs.

“Stop doing that.” Droog lightly shakes his head at Slick.

“what” Slick asks. “it keeps them in line”

“Because accountants are a rowdy bunch.” Droog says. He pokes Sleuth in the back with his card. “I didn’t tell you to slow down. Get moving.”

Sleuth keeps walking. He turns down a corner. There, at the end of the corridor, just under a flickering fluorescent light, is Spades Slick’s office. The door is plain and serviceable. Even though he’s awash in money Slick doesn’t have expensive tastes.

Sleuth walks inside. It reminds him a lot of his hideout. It’s bare, save for a cheap desk littered with knives, various papers that have been cut apart, and crude carvings about several different people, all recipients of Slick’s hate at some point.

There’s a drain in the center of the room, just beneath a rusty folding chair that Slick seats guests. The floor is stained with blood leading into the drain.

The only luxurious piece of furniture is an upright piano tucked away in the corner of the room. Unlike everything else Slick has ever owned, it’s in pristine condition and hasn’t suffered decades of vandalism from his incurable boredom.

==>

Legend has it that the day the Scurrilous Straggler found piano is the day he became Spades Slick and the day the city was founded and the day the Midnight Crew was formed. That’s what he says at the start of his jazz gigs from time to time.

You have no idea if such a romanticized account has even a kernel of truth in it. It goes against everything you know about Spades Slick for him to take up an instrument and have enough patience to achieve his level of virtuosity. You figure he’d sooner stab it then play it.

Sleuth looks at the piano. The door slams shut behind him.

“yeah its a terrific piano” Slick says. “get your own”

“Why’d you start playing?” Sleuth asks.

“what” The question takes Slick by surprise.

“The piano.”

“i know what the fuck youre talking about” Slick says.

“Well?” Sleuth asks. He turns around. Droog is giving him a blank look.

Slick folds his arms. “i like it”

“You hate everything.”

“what the fuck do you want from me sleuth” Slick says exasperated. “cant a guy take up a hobby”

“There has to be more to it than that.” Sleuth says.

“You should probably stop prying.” Droog says.

“no no ill tell him” Slick takes a step forward. “are you the same man you were when you were exiled”

Sleuth doesn’t have to think long for an answer. “No.”

“then what the fuck is so surprising”

“So what made you change?” Sleuth starts smirking. “Was it that kid with the foul mouth? Did he make you go soft?”

Slick glares.

“You should really stop prying.” Droog says.

“So it was Snowman.”

Slick glares. “why did i think not jamming a blade in your gullet the moment i saw you was a good idea” Slick asks himself.

“Because he has something we want.” Droog pipes in.

“dammit droog” Slick snaps. “do you always have to be so insufferably logical”

“Just making sure you don’t do something you’ll regret.”

Slick turns to Droog. “i wont regret it”

“You think you won’t regret it.” Droog says. “But when the Felt have the Sapphire of Alternia you’ll wish you hadn’t killed Problem Sleuth.”

Slick narrows his eyes at Droog. “i think its about fucking time we got started then”

“We should wait for Boxcars and Deuce.”

“no” Slick shouts. “were doing it now”

“Slick,”

“shut up” Slick steps to Sleuth. “youve got one chance sleuth. dont be a smartass if you know whats good for you”

Sleuth looks back at Slick. “So what was it? Did you feel liberated, like you finally got to spread your wings, or did you just miss her that much?”

“Slick,” Droog says, voice full of caution.

“you had one chance” Slick readies his knife. “and you blew it before you even knew what the question was”

“Do you always warn people you’re about to stab?” Sleuth asks. “Did you learn that from that kid? He was a terrible leader. It took him foreve-”

Sleuth shakes himself out of a daze. He was ready for the knife thrust, not the uppercut.

“Slick,” Droog warns. “Don’t do it. I’m not gonna help you if you do.”

“shut up droog” Slick says. Slick starts rolling up his sleeves.

“Listen to Droog, Slick.” Sleuth says, rubbing his jaw. “If you keep this up, well, I’m not just gonna stand here and take it.”

Slick throws another punch. Sleuth ducks beneath it but the right hook hits him off guard.

“You hit me again and I get the hell out of here.” Sleuth says. “And you never find out what I came here for.”

Slick’s eyes narrow into a fierce glare. “i dont give a shit” Slick punches Sleuth in the gut. “i dont ever wanna see that-”

Sleuth throws a punch into Slick’s jaw, sending Slick stumbling backwards.

“-smucking firk” Slick finishes.

Sleuth tackles Slick into a wall. Sleuth starts throwing punches. “Any time you’re ready to talk, Slick.”

“droog” Punch. “shoot hi-” Punch. “him dammit”

Droog shrugs. “I warned you.”

“goddammit”

Slick growls incoherently. He lands a blow on Sleuth’s head and pushes Sleuth off of him. Sleuth trips over the folding chair but braces himself on the desk. He picks up the folding chair and swings it at Slick.

Slick blocks the swing and throws the chair away. Droog steps out of the way of the flying chair. Sleuth rushes at Slick and pins him to the wall by his shoulder and starts kicking his knee in. Slick grabs Sleuth’s neck and starts squeezing. “You ready yet?”

“over my dead body”

“Fine by me.”

“dammit droog do something”

Droog pockets his card and leaves the room.

“where the fuck are you going” He shouts as Droog leaves. “after i kill sleuth youre next droog”

“Should’ve listened to him, Slick.” Sleuth says between punches.

Slick screams at the top of his lungs. With a surge of furious strength he pushes Sleuth off of him to the center of the room. Slick punches Sleuth in the gut and then delivers a powerful uppercut as he screams in rage.

Sleuth stumbles backwards. He hits the wall and braces himself against whatever’s nearest. He’s got his hand on the piano. Slick’s got a shocked look on his face which quickly turns to a look of fury.

Slick grabs a knife from his desk and rushes at Sleuth. Sleuth turns and grabs Slick’s wrist and forearm as soon as he thrusts. The knife’s an inch away from sinking into his gut. Sleuth tries to push back, but the exhaustion from running all over town and fighting every mobster in the city is wearing on him. He won’t be able to keep it away from his gut for long.

“todays the day sleuth” Slick says with anticipation.

Sleuth smirks. The knife’s tip is through his clothes. “I hope you’ve got a good enough one-liner.”

Slick smiles. “ive been waiting to use this one” Slick says. “ive been waiting years for the day i get to tell you”

It’s pierced the surface of his carapace. It won’t be long before he’s tossed in a dumpster with a card stuck in his gut. “Let’s hear it.”

“you cant sleuth your way” Slick pauses, “out of this problem”

Sleuth starts chuckling, even though it hurts with a knife trying to make its way through his carapace.

“yeah” Slick says. “it was good right”

“Slick, do me a favor.” He says. Blood starts flowing from the wound. “A dying man’s last wish.”

“what” Slick asks.

“You gotta tell Dame,” Sleuth pauses. “That before I died, I thought of her.”

Slick nods somberly. “alright”

“And how awful she’d think that one-liner was.” Sleuth adds quickly. He’s got a knife about to tear up his insides but he’s got a huge grin on his face.

==>

People say you have a death wish.

You never understood why they said that until just now.

Slick growls. “shut the fuck up and die sleuth”

The door opens. Diamonds Droog returns with Hearts Boxcars and Clubs Deuce.

“EVERYBODY QUIT FIGHTING!” Deuce shouts. “LET ME HANDLE THIS!”

“ARE WE REALLY GONNA LET THE RUNT GIVE THE ORDERS RIGHT NOW” Boxcars asks Droog.

“Just go with it. He’s good at this sort of thing.”

“GET HIM AWAY FROM SLEUTH!” Deuce shouts. Boxcars and Droog comply. They approach Slick and Sleuth.

“oh good youre all back” Slick shouts. “now how about you all get the fuck away from me so i can kill sleuth”

“SORRY SLICK” Boxcars apologizes as he pushes the two of them away from each other. “NOT TODAY”

Droog reaches in and hooks two arms around Slick and pulls him away from Sleuth.

“dammit no”

“Quiet.” Droog snaps.

Sleuth quickly pulls his key out of his pocket and puts a hand over the bleeding wound. He points the gun at Slick’s head. “Keep him away from me. Or else I’ll paint this room red. I came to talk.” Sleuth smirks. “Guess I shoud’ve tried the diplomatic approach from the st-”

Sleuth collapses onto one knee. A stern looking Clubs Deuce with the Crook of Felony in his hands is glaring at him. “I SAID, EVERYBODY STOP FIGHTING!”

“He wasn’t planning on it. The key’s empty.” Droog points out.

“Dammit.” Sleuth curses. He stands up and puts his key in his pocket. He puts a hand on the bleeding wound.

“I DON’T KNOW WHY EVERYBODY IS TRYING TO KILL EACH OTHER,” Deuce starts, pointing at Sleuth and Slick. “BUT I WON’T HAVE ANY OF IT UNLESS THERE’S A REALLY REALLY GOOD REASON FOR IT.”

“you want a good reason” Slick shouts. “he said karkat was a terrible leader”

Deuce looks at Slick blankly.

“The angry kid who hung around with Slick and swore all the time.”

Deuce looks at Droog blankly.

“THE RUNT WITH THE LITTLE NUBBY HORNS”

Deuce looks at Boxcars blankly.

“The Knight of Blood.” Sleuth throws out.

“OH, HIM!” Deuce exclaims. He turns to Sleuth angrily. “YOU SAID HE WAS A TERRIBLE LEADER? HOW COULD YOU SAY SOMETHING LIKE THAT?”

“so he should die right”

“NOT SO FAST.”

“We still need something from him.” Droog says.

“UM, YEAH!” Deuce says. “SO HOW ABOUT WE JUST TALK EVERYTHING OUT.”

“Works for me.” Sleuth says. “That’s what I came here for.”

“AND THEN LATER IF HE HAS IT COMING YOU CAN KILL HIM, SLICK.”

Sleuth rolls his eyes.

“fine” Slick relents. He shakes himself out of Droog’s and Boxcars’ grips.

“Thanks for the help, Deuce.” Droog says. He pulls a card out and points it at Sleuth. He motions to the folding chair. “Take a seat.”

Slick walks to his office chair and sits down. Sleuth rights the folding chair and sits down in it. The chair has seen better days, and only three legs meet the floor at any time. He idly wobbles back and forth, probably to Diamonds Droog’s annoyance. “So are you finally ready to talk?” Sleuth asks impatiently, hand still covering his wound.

“yeah yeah” Slick says as Droog takes position at his side against the wall. Deuce and Boxcars flank Sleuth. “what the fuck do you want”

“I’ve got the Sapphire of Alternia.” He says. He pauses, letting that sink in.

“we know” Slick says. “get the fuck on with it”

Sleuth continues. “I don’t want the thing and Wealthy Quantifier can’t pay me enough money to return it to her. But I know the Midnight Crew have deeper pockets than her. Much deeper. I think you may be willing to empty them to get it.” Sleuth says.

Slick narrows his eyes and raises a brow. “that sounds practiced. like youve said it before” Slick says. “oh you little shit you went and talked to snowman before me didnt you”

Sleuth’s taken off guard. He tries to think of an appropriate explanation. “Just because you’re obssessed with he-”

“dont try to lie i saw that look” Slick says. “you went all wide-eyed like i caught you lying”

“You don’t know what you’re talking abo-”

“why shouldnt i just kill you right now” Slick asks.

Sleuth’s taken aback. “You were just trying to kill me.”

“that was personal” Slick says. “now were talking business”

“Because I didn’t see Snowman.”

“droog”

Droog shakes his head.

“boxcars”

Boxcars shakes his head.

“deuce”

“I BELIEVE HIM!” Deuce says. “WHY WOULD HE LIE ABOUT SOMETHING LIKE THAT?”

Slick drags his hand across his face. “you know what we do to double dealing trash like you” Slick asks. He points to the blood stain on the floor. “we kill them in case that wasnt completely obvious”

“Dammit, Slick!” Sleuth pounds the desk. “I didn’t go see her!”

“how is the bitch anyway” Slick asks. “is she still beating the shit out of that crowbar wielding sack of shit”

“You’re not listen-” Sleuth says. “Wait, are you jealous?”

“what” Slick says. “no fuck no you cant get any more not jealous than me good riddance shes his fucking problem now”

“But not yours. The way it used to be.” Sleuth says. He folds his arms before he remembers he’s still bleeding. “So you do miss her.” Sleuth says, trying to subdue his triumphant smile.

“fuck this” Slick stands up from his desk. He storms out of the room. The door slams behind him.

Sleuth turns to look at the door when Boxcars slaps the back of his head. “YA MORON” He says. “DONT YA KNOW NOT TO TALK ABOUT SNOWMAN EVEN IF HE BRINGS IT UP”

“Sleuth’s too smart not to abuse something like that.” Droog says.

“BUT DOESNT HE HAVE AN OUNCE OF DECENCY” Boxcars asks. “WE DONT TALK ABOUT HIM AND DAME TO HIS FACE”

“He’s Problem Sleuth. He makes a living out of being a pain in the ass.”

“What’s the story with him and Snowman?” Sleuth asks.

“YA SEE” Boxcars starts.

“Don’t.” Droog says. “He won’t be happy if you tell Sleuth and Sleuth doesn’t need to know.”

“FINE” Boxcars says. “YOU TELL HIM”

“No.”

“REMEMBER WHEN YOU HAD ME FOLLOW BOTH OF THEM AROUND THE PALACE AT DERSE?” Deuce says to Droog.

“Yeah. I’m surprised you do.” Droog says. “But quiet down about it. Not with Sleuth in the room.”

Deuce runs to Sleuth, ignoring Droog. “SLICK AND SNOWMAN USED TO FIGHT ALL THE TIME. THEY’D STAND REALLY CLOSE TO EACH OTHER AND JUST GLARE INTO EACH OTHERS’ EYES. THEY WOULD SPEND DAYS LOOKING AT EACH OTHER LIKE THAT. AND THIS WAS FOR YEARS! EONS EVEN! THEY MUST HAVE REALLY HATED EACH OTHER TO DO THAT FOR AS LONG AS THEY DID.”

“IT WASNT HATE” Boxcars mumbles.

“It sure as hell wasn’t love.” Droog says.

“WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT LOVE DROOG” Boxcars says.

“It’s what Slick told me at the time.”

“AND WHAT DO YA THINK HE TOLD ME”

The door slams back open and everybody shuts right up. All eyes in the room focus awkwardly on Spades Slick as he walks around back to his desk. He takes a seat and scoots in the chair. It creaks loudly against the floor. He looks at the rest of the Midnight Crew. “watcha guys talking about”

“NOTHING”

“Nothing.”

“YOU AN-”

Boxcars reaches across Sleuth and slaps a hand over Deuce’s mouth.

“good” Slick says. He clears his throat and looks at Sleuth. “i think its about time we start over”

“But what about you and Snowman?” Sleuth says.

Boxcars slaps his face. Droog’s shoulders slump minutely as he glowers. Deuce looks at the wall completely obliviously.

“dammit sleuth were not talking about this. you came here to make a deal so make it” Slick says. “and theres four of us and one of you so what the fuck am i even doing letting you control the conversation”

“So you’re just gonna leave your little outburst unexplained?” Sleuth asks. “She’s obviously still on your mind.”

“yeah” Slick says. “shes a rival. its my job to think about her”

“I’ve worked a lot of cases. Some about businessmen screwing each other over. Some about gambling debts. A lot of them about trouble with you. But most of them are about a man and a woman.” Sleuth says. “I’ve seen a lot of burned lovers. You fit the bill perfectly. You can’t pretend it’s anything else. So, Slick, what’s the story?”

Slick looks at Droog. He shrugs. Slick looks at Boxcars. He shrugs. Slick looks at Deuce. He cleans his ear with his finger. “fine. you wanna know about me and snowman” Slick asks. “ill tell you”

Sleuth smiles. Then frowns.

==>

But if he tells you about it what are you gonna use to provoke him in the future?

Oh, right. He’s Spades Slick. Still though, you doubt anything’ll get him as angry as quickly as Snowman does.

Oh, who are you kidding. You’re probably thinking too far ahead. The future? That’ll be a great thing for you to see.

“she started it. and ended it just as quickly” Slick says. “she told the black king about it. guess where all the shit landed”

“That’s all?”

“thats the short version” Slick says. “the long version is that after that happened there wasnt a day i didnt want to stab her”

“She made the first move?” Sleuth asks.

Slick nods. “can you blame her” Slick asks. “with a guy like me around im surprised it took as long as it did” Slick says with a cocky smile.

“What’s the real reason?”

“fuck if i know” Slick says. “she was lonely. she missed a mans touch. she wanted to fuck with me. maybe figuratively. maybe literally. who knows”

“Why’d she break it off?” Sleuth asks.

“fuck if i know” Slick says. “she said i wasnt even half the man her husband was. if that was true ive got no fucking clue why she even bothered with it in the first place. i think she was just making up excuses”

“I TOLD YOU TO KISS THE GIRL”

“shut the fuck up boxcars” Slick snaps. “if i took your advice the black king wouldve had my head”

“SHE WANTED IT SLICK”

“i thought i told you to shut the fuck up”

“THEN HOW COM-”

“i dont care how much you think she wanted it. whatever she did after she told the black king she did to try and trap me and get me killed”

Snowman is an incredibly seductive woman. Sleuth’s heart is racing just thinking about what she might try to get Slick to give in knowing it’d be his funeral. “Is that why you teamed up with the Knight and exiled her?” Sleuth asks, moving on.

“what” Slick asks. “no

“That was always the plan.” Droog says.

“i wouldve done that anyway even if she wasnt busy making my life a living hell” Slick’s glazed look finally disappears as he snaps back from memory. He turns to Sleuth. “did you write all of that down. i hope you were taking notes”

“Yep.” Sleuth says. “This’ll be in the tabloid by tomorrow.” He spreads his hands in imitation of a headline. “The sordid past of the crime lords of the city, revealed in shocking detail. Inside on page A5.”

Slick gives Sleuth a half smile through a glare. “great” Slick says. “where the fuck were we”

“You were about to kill Sleuth for double dealing with the Felt.” Droog answers.

“oh right” Slick says. “droog kill him”

Sleuth shakes his head. “Not if you ever want to see the Sapphire of Alternia. Don’t think I haven’t covered all my bases about this, Slick. I have.” Sleuth bluffs. Sleuth really bluffs. If the Midnight Crew spent a minute with Deferrer they’d know exactly what he’s up to. And if they were just a bit braver with Maillady, well, Sleuth is glad that didn’t happen. Sleuth’ll hopefully coast by on reputation.

“well fuck sleuth” Slick says. “if youre double dealing with the felt then were not gonna see it anyway. you might as well be dead”

“Except I’m not double dealing with the Felt.” Sleuth tries to sell convincingly. “You know I’d never offer those green cockroaches a deal like this.”

Slick narrows his eyes as he thinks it over. Slick leans back in his seat and idly taps a knife on his desk. “alright” He says. “lets say i believe all that. how much money are we talking about”

“One hundred big ones.”

Slick jams the knife straight through the desk to the grip. Even Droog is a little surprised by the number. “what you think were made of money”

“This is your casino, right?” Sleuth asks, pointing around the room. “You have to keep that sort of cash around just to make this place run.”

“yeah yeah so what if we do” Slick says. “thats still a lot of money”

“And look at what you get in return.” Sleuth says. “You could rule this city uncontested. Smash Doc Scratch right up.”

Everyone in the room save Clubs Deuce shares an amused chuckle. They’re laughing at Sleuth but he doesn’t know why. Slick signals Droog to lean in closer and they whisper to each other. Sleuth can’t make out exactly what they’re saying but he’s got a pretty good idea.

He’s full of shit. Yeah, I know. Should I just have Boxcars smash his head in? Nah, we still don’t know where the Sapphire of Alternia is. So I can’t just kill him now? No, sorry, Slick. Goddammit. Well, fuck, how are we on our other leads? Dead in the water. We got his cab driver, but who knows how much she knows. Should we go torture her right now for information? Sleuth’s right here, Slick. No shit, Droog. I can see him too. No, my point is we should try to get as much out of him as we can before we move on. So, rough him up a little. Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.

Slick turns to Sleuth. “thats the biggest load of musclebeastshit ive ever heard” Slick says. “do you think im stupid”

“Yeah.” Sleuth casually nods.

Slick pulls a knife on his desk for a throw. Droog grabs his arm before he can throw it. “Slick, we just went over this.”

Slick puts the knife down. “where is it sleuth” Slick asks. “wheres the sapphire of alternia”

Sleuth shakes his head. “You think I’d give it up that easy?” Sleuth says. “Not a chance.”

“exactly the sort of answer i was hoping to hear” Slick says. “boxcars” Slick orders.

Sleuth ends up on the floor, the side of his head throbbing and his hat resting on Deuce’s shoes.

“get up sleuth” Slick says. “cant talk to you while youre on the floor like that”

Sleuth reaches for his hat and slowly picks himself up off the floor. He sits himself back down in the folding chair and puts his hat back on. “You know me well enough I’m not gonna tell you anything if I don’t want to.”

“yeah i know. but fuck if its not fun” Slick says. “where is it sleuth”

“Safe.” Sleuth says. “You’re not gonna find it and I’m not gonna tell.”

“boxcars”

Sleuth picks himself up from the floor again.

“tired yet boxcars”

“NOPE” Boxcars says. “I COULD DO THIS ALL DAY”

“what about you sleuth” Slick asks.

Sleuth glares. “Try me.”

“you can tell us anytime” Slick says. “well let you walk right out of here”

Sleuth shakes his head. He picks himself up off the floor again. “Face it, Slick.” He says, gripping his abdomen and rubbing his head. “I’m the only chance you’re ever gonna get to get the Sapphire of Alternia.”

Slick stands up from his desk, he pulls a card from his coat and walks around the desk. He thrusts quickly. Sleuth reacts slowly, and throws a hand to stop Slick’s knife a half second too late. The knife lands in his flank, a bloody gash splitting open. “well get closer and closer until you tell me where it is”

Sleuth shakes his head.

Slick thrusts again but Sleuth is ready. With a sudden burst of speed and strength he grabs Slick’s hand and twists his wrist, disarming Slick and putting the knife in his hand in one smooth motion. He turns the knife around and thrusts it at Slick. Slick twists his body away from the thrust and performs the same maneuver on Sleuth. The knife clangs to the ground.

The rest of the Midnight Crew have their weapons aimed and pointed at Sleuth. Sleuth smirks. “Sorry, Slick. You can’t torture it out of me.” Sleuth says. “Either kill me right now or take the deal. There’s no middle ground.”

Slick glares. He’s lost the momentum in the interrogotiation. He slinks back to his desk and sits himself down. “tell me the details” Slick says.

“Midnight. Alternia Park.” Sleuth says. “You bring two hundred thousand and I bring you the Sapphire of Alternia.”

“it was one hundred thousand you fucking cheat”

“Medical bills don’t pay themselves. I’m gonna have a lot of them now, no thanks to you.” Sleuth says. “And what’s two hundred thousand to you guys anyway?”

“Five percent of our gross revenue.” Droog says.

“Barely anything at all.” Sleuth smiles.

Slick thinks it over. He looks at Droog. Droog lightly shakes his head. Slick looks back at Sleuth. “alright sleuth” Slick says. “youve got yourself a deal”

“Needless to say if you pull a fast one I’ll put a bullet in your head myself.” Droog says.

Slick nods in agreement. “you got that sleuth” Slick says. “your life depends on us getting the sapphire of alternia. dont fuck with that”

Sleuth nods as he holds onto his two separate minor stab wounds. “Gotcha.”

“lets get him the fuck out of here” Slick says as he stands up from his desk. “i dont want him stealing from the place again on his way out”

Boxcars roughly grabs one of Sleuth’s arms and yanks him out of the chair. Deuce skips out of the room ahead of everyone. Droog tucks his hands into his pockets as Slick follows behind.

They escort Sleuth out of Slick’s office, down the corridors and stairs. They turn through the main service corridor and exit through the loading dock.

“aww what the fuck”

Slick looks at two security guards nervously looking at loud revving noises. They’ve got gashes in their arms and chest. Sleuth smiles.

“What happened?” Droog quickly asks the two guards.

“She pulled a pneumatic wrench from nowhere!” One of the guards explains.

“And she didn’t hesitate to use it.” The other adds.

Across the employee parking lot, Transportation Deferrer is busy unscrewing the bolts off of the tires of employee vehicles. A dozen cars and a half dozen trucks are resting on the ground with various amounts of tires missing. She notices Sleuth from far away and waves.

The Midnight Crew carry Sleuth to her.

“Heya, boys.” She says as she twirls her tire gauge around her fingers. “Like what I’ve done with your cars?” She says with a mischievous grin.

“DIDN’T SOMETHING LIKE THIS ALREADY HAPPEN WITH OUR CARS?” Deuce idly asks.

“so youre sleuths cab driver” Slick says.

Deferrer nods. “Pleasure to meet the legendary Spades Slick.” She extends a hand for a shake.

Slick glares at it. “how much does she know sleuth”

“She’s my cab driver, Slick. I don’t bare my soul to her.” Sleuth says.

“We should see what she knows anyway.” Droog says.

Deferrer straightens up. “Thank you for not roughing Sleuth up too much but I think it’s time we leave.” She says hastily as she reaches for Sleuth’s arm.

Slick grabs hold of her arm. He turns to Sleuth. “you sure she doesnt know anything” He says menacingly.

“Let me go.” Deferrer says tensely.

“I’ve kept her in the dark for just these sorts of situations, Slick.” Sleuth says. “She doesn’t know anything.”

“i think youre a liar sleuth”

“She’s not involved.” Sleuth says.

“well if shes not important” Slick starts.

“If you lay a finger on her I’ll kill all-”

A card falls out of Slick’s sleeve and it runs straight into Deferrer’s gut. “i guess i can kill her if i feel like it”

Problem Sleuth: Kill the Midnight Crew.

Sleuth roars. He rips himself out of Boxcars’ grip, knocks Slick straight to the ground and gets ready to do the same to Droog when there’s a heavy tug on his sleeve. “Can you kill them all later?” Deferrer quietly asks, holding one hand to her stomach and another to Sleuth’s shoulder to hold herself up.

Slick laughs as he sits himself up on the ground. “we still on for tonight”

Sleuth scoops up Deferrer and starts walking quickly toward her cab. “Three hundred thousand now.” Sleuth shouts angrily behind him. “Four hundred thousand if you don’t want to die.”

“two fifty” Slick shouts as he laughs. “final offer”

“Fine!” Sleuth shouts.

“see you tonight then sleuth” Slick laughs. “finally i got to fucking stab somebody” Sleuth hears Slick mutter as he walks to the car.

He opens the passenger door and seats Deferrer gently inside. He takes off his coat and presses it against the wound. He puts Deferrer’s hands on top of it, indicating to her to do the same. He rushes around to the driver side door and steps inside. Deferrer hands him the keys.

He starts the car and puts the car in reverse when her head slumps onto his shoulder. “How bad is it?” She asks.

He pulls out of the parking spot and bumps his head on the roof as the car runs over a loose tire. “I’ve seen people live through worse and die from less.” Sleuth says. “Depends a lot on the person. You willing to tough it out?”

“Of course.” She tries to say with enthusiasm. “I’ve got to collect your tip. Can’t wait to see how big it’ll be.”

“Guess I’ll take the long way to the hospital.”

Deferrer doesn’t say anything. “Don’t be an asshole right now, Sleuth.”

Sleuth nods. He’s not sure if Deferrer can see it. He drives out of the employee lot and starts making his way through the heavy two lane traffic to the hospital.

Chapter Text

“I hate to do this while you’re, well.” Sleuth looks at Deferrer and the rapidly pooling blood on the floor mat. “But I’ve got to ask. You didn’t let the B team lift the fake Sapphire off you, right?”

Deferrer scoffs. If Sleuth could see her face she’d probably be rolling her eyes. “No, of course not. Have a little faith, Sleuth.” She says.

“Never doubted you for a-”

“There’s a hidden compartment underneath the steering column. I stashed it there as soon as I saw Deuce and Boxcars.” Deferrer says. “And will you hurry up? This traffic is killing me.”

Sleuth honks the car horn. It does nothing to loosen the deadlocked traffic.

“Sleuth,” Deferrer says. “Just do what I would do.”

Problem Sleuth: Do what Transportation Deferrer would do.

Problem Sleuth turns the steering wheel to the right and honks the horn as the cab lurches up onto the sidewalk. Confused pedestrians get out of the way of the honking taxicab. Sleuth pulls out his keyring and points it out the window and the pedestrian parting properties of the cab improve significantly.

He eventually turns onto a road that’s a result of more benevolent city planning and floors the accelerator on the comparatively open street. Sleuth looks at Deferrer. “Hey, you still with me?” He asks.

“Yeah.” She says after a long delay, almost sleepily.

“You gotta stay with me.” Sleuth says. “Tell me, uh, tell me about what happened with those security guards.”

“Oh, them?” She says. “Let’s just say they weren’t perfect gentleman.”

“Tell me all about it.”

“Well, Boxcars and Deuce stopped me. They pulled in front of me from nowhere and told me to turn around. How could I refuse?”

Sleuth cautiously runs a red light. “You didn’t run away?”

“Not after Deuce slapped a bomb on the hood and Boxcars took the detonator.” Deferrer says, the effort it’s taking just to talk apparent on every word. “They escorted me back to the casino, and Boxcars left me with some thugs dressed in uniforms and told them to hold onto me for a while. After Boxcars and Deuce were gone they looked at each other with sleazy looks and thought it’d be a great idea if they took a different interpretation of Boxcars’ orders.” Deferrer explains. “So that’s when I took out my tire gauge and told them what I thought.”

“What’d you tell ‘em?” Sleuth asks. He passes a car by speeding through an oncoming lane.

“Get your hands off me you filthy bastards or I’ll bore a hole through your thick carapace.” Deferrer tries to laugh. “They didn’t catch the hint. They did after I checked the pressure on their arms though.”

“Not bad.”

“I thought so.” Deferrer says. “So then I was bored and thought, why not? I’ll wreck the Midnight Crew’s cars. And then Spades Slick stabbed me.” She adds with grim finality.

“Hey, we’re almost there.” Sleuth says. “Don’t worry.”

“And you’re taking the slow route to the hospital.”

“Hey, I’ll get you there. Just don’t bleed on everything in my coat.” Sleuth says. “Or bleed in general.”

“No problem. I’ll be all outta blood in no time.”

Problem Sleuth turns and races down a street. At the end is Alternia General Hospital. The building is old, one of the earliest in the city. It’s a fine example of Neoskaian architecture before it fell out of style. It turns out that not everyone is fond of buildings that remind them where they come from, especially if their carapaces are black. The flying buttresses look absurd anyway.

The hospital was one of the first items on the list of public services that the new city would provide, and one of the highest in demand. With the newly formed Midnight Crew leveraging power in the new city they owned, the early citizens clamored for a place to heal the many wounds they received. A handful of veteran combat medics rose to the occasion and petitioned the Midnight Crew for a place to ply their trade.

==>

Sometimes you wish you had a set of skills that were in high demand the moment you came to the city. You came here well after the city was founded and it still took you a long time to find work, because all you knew how to do was fight people and never give up.

You remember your stint as a postman. You were the hardest boiled postman the city had ever seen and you made sure those lugs who didn’t leave a return address regretted the day they thought they could get rid of their mail for good.

You were promptly fired, and you decided to become a problem sleuth. It turned out to be a perfect fit. As far as you know, you’re still the only person in the whole city to be fired from civil service. You don’t like to talk about it.

Sleuth pulls into the hospital lot and parks in front of the emergency room entrance. “See, I told you I’d get you here in-” Sleuth nudges Deferrer. She’s passed out. At least Sleuth hopes that’s just it. “Dammit!”

He puts the car in park and steps outside. He runs around and opens the passenger door. Sleuth pulls Deferrer out and carries her in his arms. He rushes inside the emergency room. “Help!” He screams. “She’s bleeding to death!”

A few nurses and orderlies take a look at Sleuth, the woman he’s carrying, and the amount of blood, in that order, before deciding that getting a gurney might be a good idea. “Put her on here, sir.” A nurse says to Sleuth.

Sleuth lays her down as a flock of medical personnel swarm around Deferrer. They rattle of a string of incomprehensible medical jargon. Stuff about blood pressure and whether any major arteries were pierced. They start carting her to the operating room. One of the orderlies discards Sleuth’s coat. Sleuth picks it up as he follows.

“Another one, huh?” A man steps to Sleuth’s side as Deferrer is pulled into the operating room. “They just keep throwing themselves away for you.”

Sleuth looks to the man standing next to him. He’s wearing surgeon’s scrubs and a cigarette butt hanging out of his mouth. Why, if Sleuth didn’t know any better he’d say this guy was a hardboiled doctor. “What are you talking about? This is the first time anything like this has happened.” Sleuth says.

“So all the other times you never bothered to take them here.” The man says. “Just use them and lose them, the Problem Sleuth way.”

Sleuth shakes his head. “That’s callous and cynical. Even for me.” Sleuth says.

“When you’re in my line of work, Sleuth, you see the worst of the worst.”

==>

Malignancy Deducer is such a fraud.

He wasn’t always that way though. He saved your life a few times, way back when, and didn't even mention it.

He’s saved your life a few times since then, and he won’t let you forget it.

“Of course. It’s real tough, seeing the underbelly of the city, dredging through the filth and the trash, all while you’re working your nine to five job in a sterilized environment.” Sleuth pulls the cigarette butt out of Deducer’s mouth. “You haven’t even smoked this. You cut it down to the butt.”

Deducer stares through Sleuth. “You don’t know what it’s like.”

Sleuth throws the butt at Deducer’s face. “Will you just save her?”

“I dunno, Sleuth. It’s past my lunch break, and it looks like she won’t be a quick fix.”

Sleuth fishes around inside the bloodied coat and pulls out his key. “Get in there now.”

Deducer lifts his hands. “Hey now, no need for that.”

“You see the worst of the worst, right? I’ll bet stuff like this happens all the time.” Sleuth smirks. He grimaces. “Now get in there or I’ll unlock your torso.”

Deducer stiffly walks towards the operating room. “The cops’ll hear about this.”

Deducer doesn’t deserve any more comebacks. “Shut up and save my friend’s life.”

“This is the last time I do you a favor, Sleuth.” Deducer walks into the operating room. He kicks the doors close behind him.

Sleuth steps to the door and looks inside. Deducer and his team of nurses get to work. They start cutting off Deferrer’s clothes and Sleuth averts his eyes.

==>

You hope you got her here in time.

You’re not really sure what you’ll do if you didn’t. Spades Slick’ll learn a new meaning of rage, at the very least.

Nothing to do about it right now though, except wait and hope.

Problem Sleuth: Park the cab.

But you could move the cab, at least.

That would be pretty impolite of you, letting Deferrer’s car run out of gas while she’s on the operating table.

And leaving the car there to block the emergency room. That would be pretty impolite too.

Problem Sleuth walks to the lobby. He notices a security guard in the corner of the room eying him. He’s talking into a walkie-talkie. Another security guard hovers outside the lobby in a different corridor.

Problem Sleuth: Get out of here.

Looks like you’ll be hearing from the cops sooner than you thought. Malignancy Deducer didn’t waste any time getting on your case about it.

You’ll have to thank him later.

Sleuth steps towards the corridor and the security guards make their move. “Sir, if you’ll please stay here.” A guard says as he hastily steps forward.

“I need to move my car.”

“I’ll take care of it for you, sir, if you’ll hand me the keys.” The guard politely offers.

“No, I can do it.” Sleuth starts for the entrance.

The guard steps in his way. “I insist.”

Sleuth stuffs his hands in his coat pockets before he remembers that he’s holding his coat in his arm. His free hand ends up in his pants pocket. “I’ve gotten into half a dozen fights today. You wanna know how many of them I’ve won?” Sleuth asks.

The guard gives Sleuth a confused look.

“All of them.” Sleuth says.

==>

Spades Slick almost gutting you doesn’t count.

“Regular folks like you, just doing their job, thought it’d be a good idea to get in my way.” Sleuth continues. “Now, I’m leaving this hospital right now, and you’re going to get out of my way before I start convincing you otherwise. And let me tell ya, I can be a pretty diplomatic fella.”

The security guard puts a hand on his gun.

“Do I look like I get scared of guns?” Sleuth says. He points a finger to his face for emphasis, highlighting the many gashes and black eyes on his carapace.

The guard nervously looks between Sleuth and the guard slowly creeping behind Sleuth.

Sleuth brushes past the guard, giving him a good shove as he walks by. “Get the hell out of my way.”

“Stop!” The guard shouts as Sleuth walks through the doors.

Sleuth doesn’t bother looking behind him. The guard’s probably got a gun pointed at Sleuth. Sleuth doesn’t care. He’s not going to take the shot.

Sleuth opens the door to the still running cab and steps inside. He throws his coat onto the bloody seat and shifts the car to drive. He looks at the entrance and sees the two guards lowering their guns. Sleuth drives the car out of the hospital lot.

Problem Sleuth starts driving towards his apartment. He knows the way by heart by now, with how often he’s made the trip. People in other cars give him horrified looks when they see the bloody mess inside. Sleuth gives him his best glare at them, and they drive away like he’s a murderer.

Sleuth pulls up to the ashy sidewalk next to his building. There are scorch marks rising up from the windows of his apartment. A crisscross of caution tape covers them almost completely, like Anarchy Repressor was trying to keep out a draft and all he had was caution tape. Sleuth parks the car.

Sleuth searches beneath the steering column, running his fingers around until he feels some odd protrusions. Sleuth depresses the compartment and it flips open, spilling its contents into Sleuth’s waiting hands. There’s a roll of cash, the fake Sapphire of Alternia, and yellowed letter addressed to Sleuth. Sleuth puts the fake in his pants pocket and quickly stuffs the fare money and love letter back into the compartment and closes it up. Sleuth grabs his coat and gets out.

Sleuth enters the building and climbs up the stairs, spotting the bullet holes he was too busy to look at yesterday morning. He makes his way to his apartment. The door’s closed. From outside, it’s hard to tell that anything’s happened, aside from the massive amount of caution tape covering the frame.

Sleuth tears the tape down and opens the door.

==>

It’s just like you imagined.

The carpet’s been completely incinerated. Carbon covered skeletons of his furniture sit in the places they used to be. The paint’s been burned off the walls and parts of the drywall eaten by the fire, revealing the building frame. Sleuth takes a step inward. His shoe crunches on the floor.

==>

You wonder if there’s anything left. You could really go for a change of clothes and some ammo, but that’s probably being optimistic.

You also need to figure out a way to get Deferrer out of the hospital. You're not leaving her helpless there for the Midnight Crew or the Felt to finish the job. Maybe you'll get an idea sifting through the ashes.

Sleuth walks to his bedroom. All that remains of his bed is a charred metal frame. The clock on the wall is frozen at a little after four, although the hour hand is drooping down to five. Sleuth opens his closet.

==>

No surprises here.

Your BACK UP EVERYTHING has been destroyed.

Sleuth moves to his desk. It’s twisted and gnarled from the heat. He forces a drawer open, revealing a stack of papers with burnt corners. He looks through the papers, some of them crumbling in his hands, until he finds a mostly undamaged envelope. He tries to force the drawer back closed before giving up.

Sleuth walks to the kitchen, notes the burnt facings of his cabinets, and sets the coat and envelope down on the singed counter. He fishes through all his coat pockets and sets its contents aside. He turns the sink faucet. The handle breaks off. He pulls off the melted hunk and turns the water valve on, and the water chugs a bit before flowing evenly. Sleuth tosses some of the water around to wash the ash off the sink.

Sleuth tries to open his freezer. The handle breaks off. Sleuth squeezes his fingers in the crack and pulls it open. He takes a few empty key rings and broken key blades out of his ammo box and puts them on the counter. He starts reloading his gun.

“There you are, Sleuth.”

Sleuth turns around with his gun ready. Litigious Lawyer is standing in his doorway, hand in his pants pocket holding onto something. Sleuth turns back and continues reloading his weapons, suddenly very conscious of the fake necklace sitting in his pocket.

“I’ve been looking for you.” He says. He steps inside and gets ready to lean against the counter before reconsidering. Sleuth doesn’t immediately answer. Lawyer awkwardly shuffles in place. “Wow, you look like hell. What've you been up to?”

“Fighting the Midnight Crew and the Felt.” Sleuth says. “Last night was tough.”

“Yeah?” Lawyer asks.

“Yeah.” Sleuth says, not willing to go into more detail.

Lawyer brings up his fist to cough and clear his throat, but awkwardly puts it down. “Listen, Sleuth, we need to talk.”

“What about?” Sleuth quickly asks.

“Well, I told Wallstreet Keynoter about what you told me this morning, and he wasn-” Lawyer cuts himself off. “It bothered him, what I told him. He’s been getting worried about you, and about the Sapphire, so-”

Sleuth remembers the men he thought he saw at the gas station. “You had me followed.”

“Yeah.” Lawyer admits. “You understand though, right, Sleuth? The deal was you’d deliver the Sapphire of Alternia to us this morning. When I have to call you over and over again, and you tell us you can’t do that, well, we start worrying.”

Sleuth turns the water off and stuffs his bloody coat in the sink. “The Felt and Midnight Crew were onto me even before the day started.” Sleuth says. “I couldn’t have gotten the Sapphire to you even if I tried.”

“Now, we understand that.” Lawyer says. “We were just being cautious. Really, they were there to make sure you were safe. That’s all.” Lawyer gives a half-hearted smile.

Sleuth finishes loading his gun. He gives a sidelong glance at Lawyer. “You didn’t follow me to my apartment just to tell me that you followed me.”

“You’re right.” Lawyer says. “What happened here, by the way?”

“Spades Slick happened.”

“Nasty customer.” Lawyer says.

“Tell me about it.” Sleuth says. He eyes Lawyer. He’s looking between his feet and the floor. “What is it?” Sleuth asks.

Lawyer locks his eyes with Sleuth. “Sorry, Sleuth. I don’t mean to accuse, but I’ve got to ask.” Lawyer says. “My men tell me you dropped by the concert hall and casino.” He says.

Sleuth looks at him. Lawyer’s got an anxious look on his face. “You don’t mean to accuse. So what’s the problem?” Sleuth says, giving his coat a quick slosh through the water.

“Sleuth,” Lawyer says, his voice firming up. “What the hell were you doing there?” Lawyer asks, tone filled with worry and accusation.

Sleuth raises a brow at Lawyer. “Really?” He asks like it’s obvious.

Lawyer shrugs. “This problem sleuth stuff isn’t my forte, Sleuth.”

“How am I supposed to get the Felt and Midnight Crew off my tail if I don’t convince them to go elsewhere for the night?” Sleuth asks rhetorically.

Lawyer visibly relaxes, and Sleuth can almost hear him mutter thanks to Skaia. He tenses back up again. “How do I know you’re not lying? How do I know you’re not looking for a buyer?”

Sleuth hefts a drum magazine in his hand. “Do you think,” Sleuth asks in his most offended tone, “That I’d really let the White King’s Scepter anywhere near them?”

Lawyer looks at Sleuth. “So you know.”

Sleuth nods. “You should’ve told me that’s what it was.”

“We told you why we couldn’t.” Lawyer says. “So if you’re not looking for a buyer what are you really up to?” He asks, changing the subject.

“I’ve got the Felt and Midnight Crew meeting me somewhere out in the warehouse district.” Sleuth lies. “Neutral ground for them. Except I won’t be there.” Sleuth smiles mischievously.

Lawyer mimics the smile.

“It’ll make it easy for me to get the Sapphire to you once they’re off killing each other and out of the way.” Sleuth says. “Meet me at Alternia Park at midnight and I’ll hand it over.”

“The park?” Lawyer asks. “Why not Keynoter’s house or my apartment or your office?”

“Look,” Sleuth says. “You know where it is, right?”

“Of course.”

“So it’s easy for both of us.”

Lawyer rubs his chin. “If it’s all the same, I’d rather you hand it over at my detectives’ headquarters.”

“Okay,” Sleuth admits with toss of his head to the side. “I’m not completely sure the Felt or Midnight Crew took my bait. It’ll be easier for me to get away if they think twice about chopping up some trees.”

“Sleuth,” Lawyer says. “I’ve got a small army.”

Sleuth shakes his head. “What’ve I told you about underestimating them, Lawyer? You were a good commander, but it’s been ages since you’ve ordered men around, and I’ve been in their faces a lot more than all of your men combined.” Sleuth says. “Just trust me on this.”

Lawyer contorts his face as he thinks it over. “Alright, Sleuth. We’ll do it your way. We’re at your mercy anyway.” Lawyer says. “If you’re worried about the Felt and Midnight Crew showing up, I’ll bring an escort. You’ll bring Dick and Inspector?”

Sleuth nods.

“Sounds good.” Lawyer nods. “You mind if I borrow your phone, Sleuth? I need to tell Keynoter about this.”

“Sure.” Sleuth points to a melted hunk of plastic that looked like it was once a telephone. He reaches into the sink and pulls out his coat.

==>

Most of the blood’s out, but it’ll still be tinged red. At least this way nobody’s going to cry bloody murder when they see you. It’s wet, but it’ll dry in what? Less than a minute?

It’s too bad you can’t not wear a coat. Carrying capacity aside, problem sleuths can’t not wear coats.

“Right.” Lawyer says. Lawyer shifts his weight and points at Sleuth. “What’s the deal there?”

“You know my cab driver?” Sleuth asks as he starts putting on the soaking wet coat.

Lawyer shakes his head.

“Spades Slick stabbed a good friend of mine.” Sleuth says. “I don’t have a spare. Also because of Spades Slick.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Sleuth.” Lawyer says. “Is she alright?”

Sleuth puts his hands on the counter. “I’m not sure. I think she’ll be alright, but I don’t know. I did everything I could to help her, barring not letting her get into a situation like that in the first place.”

Lawyer lets a somber moment pass. “Anything I can help with?”

Sleuth shakes his head. “No, I’ve got a handle on it.” He looks up. “Thanks, though.”

“I hope she’s okay.” Lawyer says sympathetically. “Take care, Sleuth.” Lawyer starts stepping out of Sleuth’s apartment. He taps his shoes together to shake off some of the ash.

“Lawyer,” Sleuth half-shouts. “You said you had me followed. You know where Dick and Inspector are? I need to get a hold of them soon.”

Lawyer turns back towards Sleuth. “They were at your office, last I heard. That wasn’t too long ago.” Lawyer waves goodbye. “Take care, Sleuth. Keep the Sapphire safe.”

“Will do.” Sleuth nods.

Lawyer steps out of the apartment.

Sleuth begins stuffing his freshly loaded keys, key rings, and the rest of his junk into his coat pockets. He picks up the envelope resting on the counter, and gives it a tap. He leaves the apartment.

Chapter Text

Sleuth steps down the stairs of his building and out onto the sidewalk. Wherever Litigious Lawyer ran off to he’s already long gone. One of his goons must’ve swung by and picked him up, and quick too. They must be better chauffeurs than private dicks.

Sleuth fishes around in his pockets and pulls out a pencil. He walks toward a mail drop box and starts scribbling a note down on the envelope.


==>

"To Persevering Maillady

Transportation Deferrer’s in the hospital. Get her out of there. Take her car.

-- Problem Sleuth"


He takes Deferrer’s keys out of his pocket and slips them into the envelope. He seals it up with a quick lick, trying to ignore the taste of burnt glue, and drops it in the mailbox. He gives the mailbox a good pat.

Sleuth stuffs his hands in his pockets. He scans the street. There’s some light traffic and a few passersby walking down the street, most of their focus on Sleuth’s burnt apartment. It’s always a good idea to attract attention as a problem sleuth. Makes the job that much more challenging.

Sleuth can’t see any black or billiard hats in sight. If he is being followed they’re doing a damn good job of keeping themselves hidden, but joke’s on them, they’re not going anywhere interesting.


==>

Time to find Dick and Inspector.

Everyone else is in on the big secret. Might as well let them in on it too.

Might as well tell them about your midnight get-together with the biggest names in the city while you’re at it. You wouldn’t want to go to a party with the movers and shakers without a few extra guns by your side.


Sleuth starts walking in the direction of his office. He tips the brim of his hat downward as he peers upward into the sky. It’s about mid-afternoon. Plenty of time to get to the office an-

“Sleuth!” A voice shouts behind him. “You can’t be serious!”

Sleuth turns around. Persevering Maillady’s standing at the mail drop box reading the note. “That didn’t take long.” Sleuth says as he returns to the mailbox.

“What’s the big idea? I can’t go running around in a car picking people up from the hospital! I’m not even finished with my route yet.”

“Well,” Sleuth says as he reaches into his pockets to pull out a cigarette. He’s disappointed when he pulls out nothing. Sleuth sighs. “I think you oughtta take the day off. It must’ve been a frightening experience, dealing with the Midnight Crew.” Sleuth says.

Maillady has a proud smile. “You heard about that?”

“From the cowardly giant himself.” Sleuth says. “You had Boxcars really spooked. What’d you do to him?” Sleuth asks.

“He leapt at me from nowhere!” Maillady says with wild arm gestures. “If Clubs Deuce hadn’t waved hi I would’ve never seen him in time. So I swung my letter opener at him and then he got this really weird look on his face like he’d just seen a ghost, and then he just dragged Deuce away.”

“You kept the, uh,” Sleuth tugs on an imaginary necklace around his neck. “Safe, right?”

“Yes, of course.” Maillady says a little too quickly. She nods vigorously.

Sleuth sighs. “What happened?”

Maillady slumps. “Okay, so maybe when Boxcars jumped at me, the tiny scepter part may have flung away and almost got swept away into a storm drain because of a leaky fire hydrant. But it’s no big deal. I found it. After the hour or two it took me to realize I didn’t feel like I could smash the whole city in an instant.” Maillady pulls the ivory piece of the Sapphire of Alternia from behind her buttoned shirt and shows Sleuth.

Sleuth reaches towards the Sapphire. “Will you put tha-”

Maillady swats at Sleuth’s hands. “Sleuth! Not out here, in public! People might get the wrong idea.” Maillady says as she tucks it back behind her shirt.

Sleuth holds his breath for a moment before letting it out. “You’re supposed to keep that thing safe.” Sleuth scolds. “I have to return that to Wealthy Quantifier at the end of all this, and she’s not gonna be happy if all I come back with is twelve pearls.”

“I did keep it safe. Is it in the hands of any vicious gangsters?” She asks flippantly with an exaggerated shrug.

“That’s not the poi-”

“Then I did my job.” She defiantly folds her arms.

Sleuth glares, struggling to come up with something to tell her. “You’re being reckl-”

“Did your cab driver do better?” Maillady almost spits out. “I bet you wish she was the one carrying the real necklace.”

“It’s not a competition.” Sleuth says in a low tone. “And she did her job too. Except she wasn’t as lucky you were.”

Maillady puts on a frown briefly. “Why? What happened to her?” She asks reluctantly.

“Spades Slick had issue with me and took it out on her.” Sleuth says, mimicking a stabbing motion with his finger. “The same thing almost happened to you.”

“That’s...” Maillady trails off. “That’s awful.”

“I know.” He says. “As long as you’re holding onto that and everybody thinks I have the Sapphire, she’s in danger, and so are you. Get her out of there. I don’t care if they want to hold on to her to rest up or anything like that. You bat your eyelashes or be sneaky or do whatever it takes. Just get her out of there and then get the both of you somewhere safe to hide.”

“But the mail!”

“Enough about the damn mail!” Sleuth shouts. “I want you both somewhere safe and I don’t care what you have to give up. If you don’t want to help then tell me right now so I can go find somebody who will!”

“Sleuth,” Maillady says with a faltering voice.

Sleuth rubs his face. He takes a moment to collect himself. He breathes deeply and exhales calmly. “Look, if you won’t do it for yourself,” Sleuth says with a gentle smile, “Do it because I told you to.” He says with a smirk.

Maillady gives a single defensive laugh. “How could I refuse such a moving plea?” She says sarcastically. “Fine, I’ll do it. The mail can wait. Delays are no big deal, really. All they do is give people reason to use private parcel services.” She says with contempt dripping from every word.

“Thanks, Maillady.” Sleuth says. “I know Deferrer’s not your favorite person in the worl-”

“She’s my worst enemy!”

Sleuth stops cold in his tracks at the comment, completely speechless. “As I was saying,” Sleuth starts again, “I know she’s not your favorite person, so I appreciate you doing this for me. A lot.”

“Your welcome, Sleuth.” Maillady says with a resigned sigh. She pulls the keys out and discards the envelope. She walks to the cab and opens up the driver’s side door and steps inside. She rubs her eyes briefly and looks into the mirror. Sleuth is stepping into the backseat.

“What are you doing?” Maillady asks from the front seat.

“I need a ride to my office.” Sleuth says. “Were you leaving now?”


Persevering Maillady: Have realization.

Now, you know that you’re a few pieces short of a checkmate, but that doesn’t mean you’re a complete slouch when it comes to matters of brainprowess. You’re absolutely certain you’re using that word right. You’ve never been more sure.

You’re thinking over a few details right now. The keys in your hand, the car that you’re in, the person in the car with you, where he’s sitting, who the car belongs to, the current condition of the owner, the attitude of the person with you toward you and toward the owner of the car.

It would be inaccurate to say you thought over all these details individually. It would be more appropriate to say you thought over all these details at once, and had a sudden burst of intuition, a logical leap from one point to another that came unprompted and unbidden and unexpected, that lead you to one conclusion, utterly inescapable in its certainty.


“Oh no!” Maillady squeaks. “You’re trying to turn me into her!”

Sleuth blinks at Maillady. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“You’re worried she’s not gonna make it, so you’re getting a head start on training somebody new to ferry you around town! Well, I won’t have any of it! I’m Persevering Maillady and I deliver mail!”

Sleuth reaches a hand towards his head and rubs his temple. “Is Snowman really going to be the least aggravating interaction I have with a woman today?” Sleuth says just barely audibly.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Get out of the car.” Sleuth says. He steps out of the back seat onto the sidewalk. Maillady steps onto the road. “If you’re really worried about something like that, then I’ll drive.” Sleuth says with a groan. “Just to prove that I don’t want you anywhere else besides delivering my mail.” He says as he walks around the car, brushing past Maillady. He steps into the driver’s seat and turns the car on.

Maillady quietly steps into the backseat. “I, uh, think I like it better back here anyway.” Maillady says hesitantly. “All that blood was freaking me out.”

Sleuth doesn’t say anything in response. He starts driving to his office. He and Maillady spend the ride in angry silence. He looks into the rearview mirror at Maillady but she won’t meet his gaze.


==>

You’re falling apart.

You don’t remember the last time you started so many fights. And not just with surly blue collar muscle, either. Friends, too.

This case is really getting to you.


Sleuth starts thinking of words to say that’ll smooth things over with Maillady when he pulls over next to his office building behind Pickle Inspector’s car. He can’t think of anything. He steps outside.

Maillady steps out and looks straight at Sleuth. His eyes drop straight to the street, and then back up. “Good luck, Maillady.” Sleuth starts. “You keep yourself safe. I care about that thing a lot less than I care about you, so if you’re ever in any danger, you use that thing. If something happened to you, well....”

“Well what?” Maillady asks.

Sleuth tries to think of something. “Well, where would I get my mail?” Sleuth asks. “The post office? That place is a mad house.” Sleuth says jokingly.

Maillady chuckles. “Thanks, Sleuth.” She opens the driver side door and steps inside. She starts the car. She pokes her head out of the window. “If you’re still alive after all of this, you owe me dinner for being such a big jerk!”

“Fine by me.” Sleuth says. “It’s the least I can do.”

“And lost wages for the mail I didn’t deliver today!” Maillady says as she drives off. Other demands are lost as the car awkwardly swerves onto the road.

Sleuth turns to his office building. He looks over his shoulder to the top of the roof across the street. Doze’s top hat isn’t there. Sleuth smiles. Slow bastard got what was coming to him. Sleuth enters the building and heads up the stairs.

He walks to Pickle Inspector’s office and looks through the frosted glass. Inspector’s meeting with somebody. Sleuth barges inside.

“Sleuth!” Inspector exclaims from his desk.

Sleuth takes stock of Inspector’s prospective client. Pretty dame. As usual. “Ma’am, my name is Problem Sleuth,” Sleuth says as he grabs and shakes a reluctant hand, “And I’m a good friend of Pickle Inspector here. I’m sorry to say, but something’s come up and I need to discuss important business with my colleague here, and if it’s not too much trouble, perhaps you could come another day.” Sleuth says quickly.

The dame looks away from Sleuth at Inspector. “Pickle Inspector, do you know this tramp?”

“Watch your mouth! I ain’t a tramp, I’m a problem sleuth, and I’m the top problem sleuth in the city, and that’s why I’m called Problem Sleuth.” Sleuth says. “Fascinating, ain’t it?”

Inspector sighs. He stands up and clasps his hands together as he approaches the woman. “This man, despite his haggard appearance, is whom he claims to be, and I regret to inform you that I do have a prior engagement with him of the utmost gravity.”

The woman frowns. “What sort of business?” She asks the both of them.

“Hardboiled business.” Sleuth says with a grim face.

Inspector nods. “Indeed. Our business concerns the lowliest member to the highest of our humble civic society.” Inspector explains.

“What he means to say is,” Sleuth says, “It goes straight to the top!” He says with a finger point that makes him feel especially hardboiled.

The woman has her jaw open from when Sleuth barged in, and it still hasn’t closed up. “But what about my husband?” She asks Inspector.

“Try the police. If they don’t help, do what I do. Look in the whorehouses.” Sleuth says. “The secret to my profession. I make a good living off that. Twenty-five dollars a day, you know. And I just gave it to you for free. You're welcome, by the way.”

The woman looks back from Sleuth to Inspector.

“If you will please come another time, I will be more than happy to discuss your missing husband in less urgent circumstances.”

The woman looks back to Sleuth. She takes a small sniff and sneers. “Take a bath, tramp.” She walks out of the office.

“I’d love to, but my hardboiled business got my apartment firebombed. Pretty damned hardboiled, don’tcha think?” Sleuth says to her as she closes the door. He turns around to Inspector.

“Your apartment was firebombed?” Inspector asks.

Sleuth nods.

“I had heard on the radio. I was concerned about your safety.” Inspector says. “I could only imagine what could have happened to you.”

“If I ever die it’s not going to by a bomb. No, it’s going to be a lot more gruesome than that.”

“I can imagine.”

“I’m sure you can.” Sleuth says. “But what happened to my apartment isn’t really what you wanted to know as soon as I walked in, is it?” He says with a knowing smile.

Inspector ogles at Sleuth. He starts tapping his fingers together excitedly. “You mean-”

“You bet I did.”

“Then what?”

Sleuth pulls the fake Sapphire of Alternia out of his pants pocket. He tosses it at Inspector. “The White King’s Scepter.”

Inspector awkwardly catches it, excitement all over his face. “Oh my, this is, this is...” His excitement drops from his face. He gives Sleuth a curious look. “This is not the White King’s Scepter.”

“Of course not. It’s a fake.” Sleuth says as he slumps into the chair where the dame sat. “Mail from Wealthy Quantifier.”

Pickle Inspector inspects the fake Sapphire of Alternia. “If the real Sapphire of Alternia is the White King’s Scepter, then its unique properties render these small chains unnecessary. It would not pass a thorough examination at this distance.” Inspector says.

“It won’t have to.” Sleuth says. “Inspector, I’ve been very busy today, and while I could spend the next half hour telling you exactly what happened, I really don’t feel like it so I’ll just make this quick. The Felt and the Midnight Crew and Wallstreet Keynoter will all meet me at Alternia Park at midnight, thinking they’re buying it. I’m going to destroy the fake in front of all of them. Then the cops show up and we get the hell out, a job well done and everybody who’s anybody ready to hunt us down and kill us.”

Inspector nods in acknowledgment. He hands the fake Sapphire back to Sleuth. “A workable, if undetailed plan.”

“What?” Sleuth asks indignantly. “What’s wrong with it?”

“There is nothing wrong with it, per se.” Inspector says. He probably doesn’t realize how condescending he’s being. “I am certain if we spent enough time planning we could make a truly wondrous performance that would annihilate all doubts about our deceptive intentions.”

Sleuth narrows his eyes. “We’re not doing any of that. I know the people we’re dealing with and we won’t have to do that for them and I don’t care enough anyway.” Sleuth stands up and walks around Inspector’s desk. He pulls open a drawer and picks up a tootsie roll.

“Very well.” Inspector says. “Does Dick know?”

“He doesn’t care.” Sleuth says as he stuffs the candy in his mouth.

“I know that, but it would nonetheless be polite to inform him.”

“Fine.” Sleuth says. He walks out of Pickle Inspector’s office into the corridor. He walks past his own office and looks through the window to Ace Dick’s office.

Sleuth opens the door. Ace Dick quickly picks up the phone and puts it to his ear. “Yeah.” He says loudly. “Uh huh. Gotcha.”

“Dick,” Sleuth tries to get Dick’s attention.

“Yeah. No problem. Right.”

“Dick,” Sleuth says louder.

“Oh, that? Just some asshole trying to talk to me.” Dick says. “No, he can wait.”

Sleuth walks back out into the corridor and opens the door to his own office. He looks inside. His phone is missing its receiver. Sleuth slams the door shut and walks back to Dick’s office.

“Sure. Yeah. Right.”

Sleuth storms up to Dick and pulls the receiver out of his hands and throws it at the open doorway. The unattached receiver flies through the air and takes Pickle Inspector’s hat off. The hat flutters down into Inspector’s waiting hands.

“Sleuth!” Dick says angrily. “I was taking a call!”

“With an unplugged phone you were holding upside down?” Sleuth asks. “It’s not even your phone! You stole that from my office.”

“So?”

Inspector steps forward. “Good day, Dick. Problem Sleuth has a very important matter he wishes to inform you of all details concerning. If you will recall our outing last night to the warehouse wherein we battled the Midnight Crew and the Felt, the purpose of which was to prevent them from following us to our ultimate goal for the evening, which was the recovery of the Sa-”

“Sleuth, what the hell is Inspector droning on about?”

“You get to shoot stuff again soon.”

“Great. Was that so hard, Inspector?” Dick asks. “That’s all I wanted to know. All I needed to know. I don’t care about any of those details, like who, or where, or what, or why. Just tell me when I can start shooting.”

Sleuth glances at Inspector. “I told you he didn’t care.”

Inspector sighs. He checks Dick’s clock. “Even according to Dick’s inaccurate timekeeper, we have several hours before midnight. What do you wish to do until then?”

Sleuth stuffs a hand in his pants pocket. “We should just hunker down someplace until we’re ready.” Sleuth says. “The office is cramped, my apartment’s been burnt to ashes, and Dick’s a filthy slob who wouldn’t clean his place if his life depended on it even though it’s starting to reach that point.” Sleuth says. Sleuth turns a gaze towards Inspector.

“So that leaves...?” Dick asks. Sleuth isn’t sure if he’s trying to send Inspector a subtle message or genuinely curious. Either option is surprising.

Inspector nervously ogles between Dick and Sleuth. “While I would never think of making... impositions,” He stresses, “On my colleagues, I must ask that you consume less of my food stores than last time. I would remind you I make less than you do on a regular basis, Problem Sleuth, and can ill afford such... voluminous eating.”

“Fair enough. Dick, quit being such a porkswine.” Sleuth says. He starts walking out of Dick’s office. “Come on, let’s go. We’ve got time to kill.”


Problem Sleuth, Pickle Inspector, & Ace Dick: Kill time.

You’re all in agreement: the best way to spend time between now and the midnight meetup is to go over to Pickle Inspector’s apartment and mooch off of him.

You drive there in Inspector’s car, and you all note that his wild imagination is not lost on his living spaces, as every single square inch is slaved over with care and dedication and precision.

You knowingly ruin the delicate balance he keeps all his decorations the moment you step inside.

Problem Sleuth: Make yourself at home.

You flop yourself down on Pickle Inspector’s couch, ignoring his complaint about blood and filth staining the expensive upholstery. He stops after a moment to go keep Ace Dick away from the pantry. Another problem solved through decisive inaction.

You didn’t realize how tired you were until you sprawled yourself out over a couch this comfortable. All your troubles seem to be draining away. All the fights the past few days, the scuffles, the brawls, the shootouts. Tense negotiations, tense interrogations, tense communications, tense interactions. It’s like the couch is borrowing your troubles for a little while, to take the burden off of you. You don’t think you’ve ever met such a generous couch.

It occurs to you that the couch probably isn’t being generous, and that there’s more than likely some other reason for why you’re suddenly so tired, but you lose your train of thought as you quickly drift to sleep.


Chapter Text

Problem Sleuth opens his eyes. A few lamps cast dim light across Pickle Inspector’s parlor as purple moonlight lights up the back of some frilly curtains. He reaches a hand towards his face and rubs his eyes.

Dick and Inspector are in the middle of a conversation. Sleuth listens in, remembering vague bits that he overheard while sleeping.

“You know, I’m not really happy about all of this.” Dick says. “I did my duty. Serving the White King and Queen is something I thought I had put behind me a long time ago.”

“But our services are not without adequate compensation.” Inspector replies.

“It’s the principle of it all. Tell me just one thing, Inspector.” Sleuth hears Dick shuffle in his seat. “Are we getting paid because it’s a business arrangement or because we’re being rewarded for service above and beyond?”

Inspector takes a moment to answer. “That is an incredibly insightful question. I am deeply surprised with you, Dick.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure.” Dick dismisses. “Wallstreet Keynoter and Wealthy Quantifier pretend it’s a business arrangement but if we said no they’d remind us what’s at stake here until we said yes.”

“What is at stake?”

Dick pauses. “Don’t act like you don’t know.”

“Do you?”

“Shut the hell up.”

“I do not understand your anger.” Inspector says. “Did you not through proxy make a working arrangement with Wallstreet Keynoter?”

“Well, yeah.” Dick says, a little embarrassed. “But I didn’t know it was him when I accepted.”

“But it was Litigious Lawyer who hired you.” Inspector points out. “Did you not recognize him?”

“Well, yeah.” Dick says, a little embarrassed. “But I didn’t think he had anything to do with Keynoter.”

“But Lawyer is employed by Keynoter.”

“Is this going somewhere, Inspector?” Dick asks.

“I find your dissatisfaction with our current situation contradictory if not a little hypocritical considering you accepted an offer from Wallstreet Keynoter without question.”

“Fine, you win. I’m a big, fat hypocrite.”

Sleuth stifles a laugh.

“What was that?” Dick asks.

Inspector waits a moment. “The drapes.” He replies. “They are always making odd noises.”

“But you see my point here.” Dick says. “We’re getting pulled into things way above our heads not because we’re damn good private dicks getting paid for a job but because some monarchs expected us to go back to kneeling before them like old times.”

“But we are nonetheless the correct individuals for the task at hand, former servants of a king notwithstanding.”

Dick groans. “This is why I don’t like talking to you. It’s impossible to complain about anything to you.”

“However, I could hardly refuse either of them, even if I truly wished to. Could you?”

Dick takes a long moment. “No.”

Sleuth sits up on the couch. He stands up and walks to the table Dick and Inspector are sitting at. Their weapons are spread out across it, cleaned and cared for.

“Well, look at that. Sleepyhead’s finally up.” Dick says.

“No thanks to you.” Sleuth says. “You know, if I had known what I was getting into, I would’ve said no to Wealthy Quantifier as soon as she walked through my office door.”

“Liar.” Dick says. “You wouldn’t pass up the payday.”

“Money ain’t worth nothing if you’re too dead to use it.”

“But, Sleuth, in the process of refusing you would allow the Sapphire of Alternia to fall into the wrong hands?” Inspector asks.

“Like Wallstreet Keynoter’s?” Sleuth asks. “It was his in the first place. I’m sure he knows how to use it responsibly. And if he doesn’t,” Sleuth shrugs. “It’s not my problem.”

“Sleuth,” Inspector starts. “You would let yourself be ruled by a king again, if not in name, then in effect, just to refuse a queen?”

The question hits Sleuth hard. “No.” Sleuth responds firmly. He shakes his head. He looks at Inspector, trying to find a response, before looking at the floor and shaking his head again. “Let’s go. Get this over with. I don’t want to think about how I’m still a pawn anymore.”

“What? Now that you’re ready it’s time to go?” Dick asks sarcastically.

“Yeah, got a problem with it?” Sleuth says as he starts walking towards the door.

“Yea-”

“Shut up, Dick.”

Inspector gathers his key and sextant and compass and tripod and organizes them into his pockets. Dick grabs his key ring and hairpin and wig and chili pepper and stuffs them into his coat wherever they fit. They both follow Sleuth and exit Inspector’s apartment.

The three private detectives wander down the flights of stairs to Inspector’s building. They exit the building as the doorman gives them a polite nod. Sleuth looks up into the sky. It’s cloudy, like it hasn’t been for a while, like the way it looked to the people who used to live here hundreds of years ago. Wispy clouds twirl around the moons and reveal long, narrow patches of the night sky.

Inspector steps to the driver’s side door and unlocks his car. He enters in, and unlocks the passenger door. Dick opens the passenger door and unlocks the back. Sleuth steps into the back seat. Inspector starts the car, and carefully drives onto the empty street.

The streets are darker than usual and completely barren. Changing stoplights are the only sign that there’s anything still living. The car passes regularly underneath lampposts, lighting up the inside of the car in a steady rhythm. The three of them are perfectly quiet, and the engine and its rumblings are the only sounds for blocks around.

Inspector turns a corner. On the side of the road branching, shambling shadows twist with the moving light. Inspector parks the car well away from the entrances to Alternia Park. He pulls his keys out as Dick and Sleuth step onto the sidewalk. The trees return to being ominous silhouettes against lit windows and gray clouds as the car turns off.

Sleuth hops the brick fence and lands on grass. Dick and Inspector soon follow, and they tread carefully over the plant life. The unlit limbs of the trees loom over them like blackened giants peering downward in curiosity at skittering animals.

Sleuth walks onto a stone path. As it winds through the park the trees grow less and less dense until the path enters into an open clearing, completely dim save for the sparse moonlight. In the center of the meadow four paths meet together.

Sleuth heads down the path and stops at the intersection. He stuffs his hands in his pockets and waits.

“Good thing everybody else is prompt and on time.” Dick says, breaking the silence.

“Keep it quiet.”

Sleuth waits a few minutes until he spots something to his right. A faintly glowing orange dot moves along the path and sways from side to side. It sporadically brightens and dims. The cigarette’s owner and his company step out onto the meadow, and the dim light from the moons filtered through the clouds is enough to pick their perfectly black outlines from the rest of the scenery. Spades Slick and the rest of the Midnight Crew stop just short of the intersection, the spades-shaped flourishes of their casino off in the skyline behind them.

“sleuth” Spades Slick coolly greets.

“Slick.” Problem Sleuth returns equally coolly.

“Inspector.” Droog exhales.

“Droog.” Inspector says with a small bow.

“DICK.” Deuce says excitedly.

“Deuce.” Dick says indifferently.

“URM” Boxcars mumbles. “AWWW COME ON. WHEN ARE YA GONNA GET A FOURTH MAN SLEUTH? IM TIRED’A BEING THE ODD MAN OUT FOR THESE THINGS”

“Haven’t needed one yet.” Sleuth smirks. “You know how it goes: three’s a team, four’s a crew.”

Slick tugs at the collar of his coat. “im surprised to see you here sleuth” Slick says. “we figured you were gonna pull something funny thatd end up with you getting killed somehow”

“He’ll still try.” Droog tells Slick.

“then well kill him somehow. easy as that” Slick says. “you need to think these things through droog”

Droog’s cigarette dips downward, and he lets out what Sleuth is sure is the most aggravated sigh he’s ever sighed.

Sleuth looks between Slick and Droog. “I’m glad you’re not letting your yes man make all the decisions for you.”

Droog glowers at Sleuth. He tosses his cigarette onto the stone and crushes it with his expensive shoes in slow deliberate motions.

“of course not. droogs a good guy when hes not making plans to kill me”

“I’ve never-”

“course you havent. guy as thorough and prepared as you? yeah right you never thought about it. but im in charge in this town and droog listens to me” Slick finishes. “but enough chit chat” Slick snaps his fingers.

Deuce deploys his battledrobe and rummages through it until he pulls out a card. Deuce holds the black leather suit case flat in his arms and opens it up, revealing stacks of cash.

“two hundred and fifty big ones” Slick says.

“Oh my.” Inspector tugs on his collar and starts sweating. Dick has an eager, greedy look on his face.

“just like we agreed when i stabbed your friend” Slick continues. “how is she by the way” Slick asks with an amused smile.

The question makes Sleuth furious. He wants to pull out his key ring and gun him down. “You’re losing your touch. She was still alive when I made it to the hospital.” Sleuth says, managing to force his rage down for the time being.

“terrible shame” Slick says. “i held up my end of the bargain sleuth. time to hold up yours”

“Right.” Sleuth says. He starts fumbling around in his jacket pocket.

“youre gonna be a real rich man sleuth” Slick says. “i hope you know what youre getting here. two fifty is a good chunk of the liquid cash flowing around in the whole city. you could retire and live comfortably for the rest of your life.” Slick rambles. “droog here wanted to kill you and take the sapphire so we get to keep the money but i said no to that. spades slick doesnt make deals he doesnt plan on keeping. unless not keeping them was the whole point of making the deal in the first place” Slick finishes. “you gonna get that thing out anytime soon” Slick asks impatiently.

“Just gotta make sure all the pieces are here.” Sleuth says.

“i cant believe how well this is going. im giddy like a fucking school girl” Slick says. “the only thing that could ruin a mood like this is if snowman show-” Slick trails off. “oh you lying sack of shit”

Sleuth looks to his left. A large green silhouette slowly reveals itself to be fifteen green silhouettes. Yellow, blue, red, purple, orange, green, maroon, black, striped yellow, striped blue, striped red, striped purple, striped orange, striped green, and striped maroon. The green moon hangs just above them in the sky, unnaturally off its usual path, as if it’s watching over them. The Felt are all here.

A small trail of smoke floats up from Snowman’s cigarette holder as her legs walk smoothly in Sleuth’s direction. “Oh, dear. We’ve walked into a gathering of inadequate men.” Snowman says as she stops just short of the intersection, Crowbar at her side and an entourage of deadly green men behind her. “I cannot begin to express how perfectly you would fit in, Crowbar.”

“youre a fucking dead man sleuth” Slick says as Deuce packs up the briefcase of money.

“Spades Slick, you wound me!” Snowman says. “It’s been years, no decades, since we last talked and your first words upon seeing me are to a man? I feel slighted, if not a bit envious. I demand an apology.”

“youre fucking dead sleuth” Slick repeats.

Snowman sighs. “And he used to whisper such things to me.” She says. “I see now why it did not work out between us. If only I had realized sooner. He is not... fond of women.”

Slick rapidly turns his glare from Sleuth to Snowman. “shut the fuck up you fucking whore” Slick screams. “lets go droog were getting out of here” Slick turns around to start walking away. Droog puts a hand on his shoulder and starts whispering into Slick’s ear.

Droog and Slick have a hushed conversation. Sleuth can’t hear them but he has a pretty good idea of what’s going on. Look, Slick, I know our plan is shot but there’s still a chance we can grab the Sapphire. We just have to wait for the right time. Fuck this, Droog, I’m not sticking around with her here. Slick, you’re letting your feelings get in the way of business. No shit, Droog. You think I wanna be here? No, of course not, but I’m not about to lose the Midnight Crew and everything we’ve made for ourselves just because you couldn’t look your fucking girlfriend in the eye. It’s past time you man up, Slick. You got a lot of nerve saying that to me. Is that what you really think, Droog? Yes. Someone has to be honest with you. Fine, you piece of trash, I’ll do it.

Slick turns around and determinedly takes a step forward. “hey crowbar” Slick says. “hows the bitch treating you”

Crowbar eyes a glaring Snowman. “We’re doing fine.”

“you know if she beats the shit out of you thats her way of letting you know she likes you right”

“Really.” Crowbar says flatly.

“let me tell you though crowbar” Slick says. “it aint worth it” He says with a light shake of his head.

Crowbar’s eyes glaze over. “I’ve been thinking. I think I know what your problem was.”

“oh thisll be good” Slick says. “and whats that”

“You could just never fuck her right.”

Slick laughs hollowly to hide his obvious anger. “and what? you doing better” He asks.

“I’m not stupid enough to mix business and torture.”

Slick snarls.

Snowman laughs in an unnervingly artificial way. “Oh, Crowbar, we shall have plenty to discuss about respect at a later time. I sincerely hope you will survive the discussion. I would be distraught without the pleasure of your company.”

“I don’t care. Let’s just kill them all and be done with it.” Crowbar says impatiently. “We’ve got the manpower for it.”

“No you don’t.” Dick pipes up.

“Don’t you remember what you’re here for?” Sleuth asks Crowbar, hand stuck in his pocket. “If anybody so much as pulls out a pistol or a knife or a crowbar I’ll kill every single one of you.”

“Precisely.” Snowman agrees. “It is times like these that I am reminded that anyone could perform the duties of your job better than you. Even Problem Sleuth would be more fit to wear the seven on your head and wield the crowbar in your hands.”

Crowbar rubs his temple. “Look, if we shoot fir-”

“Thank you, Crowbar, but that will be all.” Snowman interrupts. “I will not require any further suggestions from you so if you would kindly remain silent I would be greatly appreciative.”

“yeah shut the fuck up crowbar”

Snowman coldly stares at Slick with a look of disgust on her face. She glances at her cigarette holder.

“Not a chance.” Sleuth says assertively. “Put it away.”

Snowman huffs. “Very well.” She takes one last drag before dropping the cigarette onto the ground. The cigarette holder returns to the inside of her coat. “Problem Sleuth, the Felt were under the impression that we were to meet you here with the money and that we would exchange it for the Sapphire of Alternia. You can understand how we got that impression, can you not? That is, after all, exactly the details of our arrangement. So we are considerably surprised that you neglected to inform us that the Midnight Crew would also be attending the exchange in a purchasing capacity. I am not certain if you are deceitful or simply ignorant but given the history between our two gangs you must have anticipated the problems that we, and more importantly, I, would have had.” Snowman finishes. “I am, however, in a conciliatory mood. If you send the Midnight Crew away we can perform the exchange as arranged, with no ill consequences to you, or to everyone you know and care about.”

“like hell” Slick says. “were not leaving here without the sapphire”

“Good.” Sleuth says with a predatory smile. “Then we get to find out who wants it most.”

Snowman breathes in sharply. “Of course. And to think this surprises me.”

“you little fuck” Slick spits out. He groans and sighs. “we still got more money than them sleuth. the felt cant compete with us so lets just get this over with”

Sleuth shakes his head. “Can’t have an auction with people missing.”

“Auction?” Droog says with a shake of his head. “Slick, I think we should start shooting right about now.”

“I’m with Droog!” Crowbar says loudly. He steps forward with an exaggerated point of his finger. “Felt, kill th-”

Snowman quiets Crowbar with the fastest backhand Sleuth’s ever seen. Crowbar falls backwards into Sawbuck. “Imbecile!” She shouts. She looks back at Sleuth. “Missing people?” She asks slowly.

Sleuth nods. He points straight ahead.

The white carapace of Wallstreet Keynoter reflects two colors of moonlight as his broad form sways widely from left and right. A group of twenty private detectives led by Detective Ringleader, all with weapons ready, follow behind him. Litigious Lawyer walks at Keynoter’s right. Behind them, black against gray clouds, is Keynote Bank, standing tall above the rest of the skyline, a small cross at its top.

Wallstreet Keynoter stops, and stares fiercely at the groups assembled. His breath rumbles with a deep rasp as he breathes in and looks around. He glances at Snowman. “Your majesty.”

Snowman nods politely.

Keynoter glances at Spades Slick. “Archagent.”

“old man” Slick says with curiosity. “what in boxcars flying axe handles are you doi-”

“Personal Swordbearer.” Keynoter says to Sleuth.

“Don’t call me that.” Sleuth speaks up. “That’s not my name. Not anymore.”

“Then what do you go by? Prospit Soldier? No, that’s not a name fit for somebody with such distinguished service. Penitential Scourer? You’re not a desert dweller. Problem Sleuth? A good name, perfectly apt for what you do, up until now.” Keynoter says severely. “What about Pernicious Scoundrel?”

Sleuth meets Keynoter’s stare.

==>

This is the hardest thing you’ve ever done.

You can’t look him in the eye. But you have to. You feel like you’ve betrayed everything that you’re made of and everything that makes you who you are. And there Wallstreet Keynoter is making sure you know it.

But you made a decision. Tough as it is, you still have to see it through to the end.

Sleuth thinks about breaking away but manages to hold his stare. “I’m no scoundrel.”

“Funny.” Keynoter says, anger and disapproval in his voice. “Then what the hell are they doing here?” He suddenly roars, pointing at Spades Slick.

“holy shit” Slick comments. “did keynoter just say the h word”

“Archagent Jack Noir, I will not have you interrupting me!” Keynoter screams at Slick.

Slick shrinks back a little at seeing Keynoter’s anger.

“Apologies for the language, your majesty.” Keynoter says to Snowman.

“Think nothing of it.” Snowman replies.

Keynoter returns his gaze to Sleuth. “Answer my question, Scoundrel.”

Sleuth keeps his stare. “They’re here to bid for the Sapphire of Alternia.” Sleuth says resolutely. “Just like you.”

“You can’t be serious, Sleuth! That’s not what you told me!” Lawyer says, voice wavering. “Are you making me out to be a lia-”

“Lawyer,” Keynoter says, gently blocking Lawyer with his hand. Lawyer lowers his shoulders and his head. “Spades Slick, Snowman, what were you meeting Sleuth here for?”

“to buy your wifes piece of shit necklace for a ton of fucking money” Slick says.

Snowman nods. “A king’s ransom.”

Keynoter grunts thoughtfully. “It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only who’s been lied to. It’s small comfort, considering the company. No offense to such upstanding members of the community as yourselves.”

“None taken, of course.” Snowman says.

“oh sure” Slick says. “its just fucking fine to lie to the leader of the midnight crew but somebody lies to the big banker and all of a sudden its a tragedy”

“It’s a matter of trust and betrayal.” Keynoter says. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”

“what the fuck is that supposed to mean”

Snowman lets out a single mocking laugh. Slick fires an angry look at her.

Keynoter holds out his hand, palm upward. “Sleuth, I have no idea what you think you’re doing, but it’s not too late to make things right. Give me the Sapphire of Alternia. I won’t ask twice and I won’t beg and I definitely will not bid. You gave me your word that you would find it and bring it back to me. Are you going to live up to it or will I be calling you Pernicious Scoundrel for the rest of your life?”

Sleuth can feel all eyes on him. Snowman and Crowbar and the rest of the Felt, Spades Slick and Diamonds Droog and Hearts Boxcars and Clubs Deuce, Wallstreet Keynoter and Litigious Lawyer and the rest of his detectives, Pickle Inspector and Ace Dick. They’re looking at him and waiting for his response.

Sleuth’s legs are working against him. They’re ready to move forward, ready to walk up to Wallstreet Keynoter and kneel before him, ready to pass the task over to Sleuth’s arms who’ll do the rest of the work and give the Sapphire of Alternia to Keynoter. Sleuth lifts his heel unnoticeably off the ground before a sense of immense crisis and alarm hits him and he plants it firmly. Sleuth closes his eyes.

He opens them and shakes his head. “Sorry, Keynoter. I really am. But that’s not gonna happen.” Sleuth says, relieved that the words made it out of his mouth. “But I’ll make you a deal: Outbid these criminals, and it’s all yours.”

Keynoter frowns. “All that work, wasted, all because I trusted you.” Keynoter says quietly.

Snowman taps her chin. “And why would Problem Sleuth be meeting you here to simply hand the Sapphire of Alternia over to you when we Felt and the Midnight Crew are here to purchase it?”

Keynoter folds his arms. He opens his mouth to speak.

“Because he stole it from his wife.” Sleuth interrupts. “And he didn’t want to be seen doing his own dirty work so he had the crowd around him pull off the job and had me take it to him.”

“Is that so?” Snowman asks Keynoter. “I shall have quite the tale to tell Wealthy Quantifier if that’s true. I am certain she will find the story of her husband’s fall from grace very enthralling, if she doesn’t know it already.”

“dont tell me you went crooked keynoter” Slick says. “id hate to have to put you out of business if you catch my meaning”

“I’d sooner kill myself than fall to your level. The only thing you have to worry about from me is my,” Keynoter sighs, “Shining example.”

Slick starts laughing. “you listening to yourself” Slick asks through chuckling. “shining example my polished ass”

Wallstreet Keynoter silently suffers Spades Slick’s laughter with folded arms. His chest heaves with a large breath that he slowly exhales. “Just get this over with.” He says to Sleuth. “This is disgraceful enough already.”

Sleuth pulls the fake Sapphire out of his pocket and holds it out. “Here’s the goods.” He says enthusiastically. “Let’s start the bidding at two fifty.”

Droog whispers something in Slick’s ear. “just one fucking second” Slick speaks up. “prove its the real thing”

Sleuth pulls his hand back and stares at the necklace.

==>

You hadn’t thought about that.

You have no idea how you’re going to make this incredibly valuable piece of junk pass off for the real White King’s Scepter. There’s certain expectations about what a royal artifact is supposed to look like, and you’ve got no way to magically transform it into the thing you need.

But you don’t know what you were worried about, because you have been clearly holding the FAKE WHITE KING’S SCEPTER in your hand this whole time.

Sleuth spins the fake Scepter once around in his hand like a marching band conductor to murmuring from the Felt and Keynoter’s detectives. “What? You didn’t trust me? Can’t believe you’d ever doubt me over something like this.” Sleuth asks with the corner of his mouth creeping up one side of his face. “Two fifty.” He repeats.

Slick glances at Droog. Droog shrugs. “two fifty”

Sleuth looks at the Felt. They look back at him. “Going once.” He says.

Lawyer looks up at Keynoter. “We’re not going to just let Sleuth give it away like that, are we?”

“I won’t bid for it.” Keynoter says.

“Going twice.” Sleuth says, looking around.

“Two hundred seventy-five.” Snowman says.

“We don’t have that kind of-”

“Then we will slash the salaries of you and your men until we do.” Snowman interrupts Crowbar.

“Two seventy-five.” Sleuth repeats. He holds the fake Sapphire around for everyone to see.

“three hundred” Slick says. “bitch” He spits at Snowman. Slick whispers something at Droog. Droog and the rest of the crew stiffen up.

“We can’t let either of them have it.” Lawyer says.

“I won’t bid for it.” Keynoter remains firm.

“Three hundred.” Snowman bids.

“how long you think you can keep that up” Slick asks. “three twenty-five”

“Three twenty-five.” Sleuth echoes.

“We have to do something.” Lawyer begs Keynoter.

“Maybe You don’t understand.” Keynoter says. “I won’t bid for it.” He says, saying every word slowly.

Something clicks in Lawyer’s head and it shows on his face. He turns to Sleuth. “Half a million.” He says eagerly.

“no fucking way” Slick says surprised. “where the hell do you get cash like that”

“You’d really like to know, wouldn’t you, scum?” Lawyer growls.

“Half a million.” Sleuth repeats.

Snowman curls a fist. “Five hundred fifty.”

“We’ll have to mortgage the mansion at this rate.” Crowbar interjects.

“We will not leave without it, no matter what it takes!” Snowman says intensely.

“six hundred fifty”

“Seven fifty.” Lawyer says.

“Eight hundre-” Snowman pauses. She tilts her head like she’s listening to something. Soon enough, the sounds of sirens start filling in the clearing.

“You hear that?” Sleuth asks. “I ain’t sticking around for the cops to throw your asses in the slammer. Make up your damn minds.”

“droog” Slick says in a demanding tone. “whats going on”

“I don’t know.” Droog replies.

“how come you dont know” Slick says. “theres nothing that goes on in the force you dont know about”

“I don’t know, Slick!”

“Come on, somebody make me a real offer.” Sleuth says impatiently as the sirens grow louder and louder.

“Eight hundred.” Snowman says.

“Now we’ll have to sell the mansion.”

“Quiet!” Snowman screams at Crowbar.

“nine hundred”

“A million.” Lawyer counters.

“where the fucks this money coming from”

“A million and the promise that you won’t die in your sleep.” Snowman says.

“that aint a fucking offer” Slick shouts. “a million two fifty”

“A million and a half.”

“fuck” Slick says, thrusting a hand under his hat. “theres no way you have money like that. no fucking way” Slick says to Lawyer. “a million and a half and i wont kill dame”

“A million and half, to Litigious Lawyer.” Sleuth says.

Slick is baring his teeth grimly. Snowman’s doing the same.

The sirens start blaring from every direction. “Going once.” Sleuth says.

“you do that and youre fucking dead sleuth”

“We will annihilate you if you don’t give us the Sapphire of Alternia.” Snowman says. “Final offer.”

“Going twice.”

“droog thin out the competition”

Droog pulls out a card. Pickle Inspector points a sniper rifle at Diamonds Droog.

“Dammit, shoot them!” Crowbar orders.

Ace Dick points a minigun at the Felt with a shake of his head.

Keynoter holds his fist into the air. His detectives raise their weapons.

“Fine!” Sleuth shouts above everybody. He pulls the fake Sapphire back and puts his hand in his pocket. “No one gets it!”

Problem Sleuth: Destroy the fake Sapphire of Alternia.

Sleuth pulls out the tube of lipstick.

“what you into drag now”

“No, that’s-” Snowman stops suddenly. “Stop him!”

==>

You throw the fake into the air. You push a button at the end of the tube of lipstick and watch as it extends and unfolds into a chainsaw. You grasp it by the handle and pull on the cord to start the engine, all the while marveling at its amazing craftsmanship.

It starts with a single pull. The engine of the SINGER SONGWRITER roars a harmonious melody as the threaded needles bob up and down as they spin around with increasing rapidity.

You raise the chainsaw to the falling fake. It sparks as the teeth cut between the scepter’s handle and sphere when suddenly the thin metal chain catches between the teeth. The chainsaw violently pulls the ivory piece into the case, and the engine squeals as the chainsaw stops. You throw the engine into full throttle. The engine squeals and screams and roars and whines.

The piece shatters. It explodes brightly right in Sleuth’s face and he can’t help but hold a hand up to cover his eyes and stumble backwards from the blinding flash.

As he slowly blinks his way back into sight he looks around. Everyone else didn’t fare much better. He looks around, at the ground, at the path, in the chainsaw. There’s no trace of the fake Sapphire of Alternia anywhere. Off in the distance he can hear police officers talking about the sudden flash of light.

“Keynoter, did he really...?” Lawyer asks.

“Yes.” Keynoter says solemnly. “I would know.”

Snowman slaps Crowbar into alertness. “Kill them all or die in the attempt.” Sleuth’s eyes clear up enough to watch her disappear into a shadow.

Sleuth sees Slick holding a hand across his eyes and another stretched out feeling his way around. “my eyes” Slick groans. “my fucking eyes. droog im fucking blind help me goddammit. droog where the fuck are you”

Crowbar rubs his eyes and groggily pulls out a submachine gun.

Sleuth, still holding the chainsaw, nudges Inspector and Dick with his shoulder. “We need to leave. Now.”

Crowbar points the gun in Sleuth’s direction. He pulls the trigger.

==>

The SINGER SONGWRITER auto-parries! The FULCRUM ADJUSTER’s fire is reflected back at its user!

Crowbar takes bullets in the shoulder and the calf, falling to a knee.

Sleuth raises a brow and glances down at the spinning, shining, gleaming chainsaw.

==>

You have no idea how you did that. That shouldn’t be possible.

You feel ten times faster than normal when your fingers are wrapped around this thing.

Sleuth raises his chainsaw to additional fire from Crowbar. “Dick! Inspector!” Sleuth shouts as halves of bullets fall to the ground. “Move it!”

“Just-” Dick tries to speak. “Give us some time!”

The rest of the Felt pull out their weapons as Keynoter’s detectives open fire and the Midnight Crew jump behind their punchdecks.

Hearts Boxcars pops up with his chaingun and points it at Keynoter’s men. Sleuth covers the distance in less than a second and chops the barrel in half, but not before Litigious Lawyer takes a stream of fire across his leg and lower body. He falls over as Keynoter steps in front of his men to guard them.

Sleuth effortlessly sidesteps a vertical swing from a two-handed sword. He chops at Slick’s sword, sending the upper half into Clubs Deuce’s hat. Sleuth meets a rapier thrust with a chainsaw thrust, sending chunks of sharpened metal in multiple directions. Sleuth continues the thrust and Slick blocks the oncoming chainsaw with his horse hitcher, pushing back for his life. Sleuth grins as the chainsaw carves a deep groove on its way through the horse hitcher.

Slick’s card falls into two pieces as he leaps back from Sleuth and the chainsaw. Sleuth pulls out his key and shoots Slick in the gut.

==>

You glare at him. You know why you did that. You’ve got it written all over your face.

Slick looks back at you. He’s mad, but understanding. He knows why you did it too. And he knows you could’ve killed him for it just now.

Sleuth turns his attention elsewhere. He sees Quarters spooling up his chaingun to fire at Dick and Inspector. Sleuth leaves Slick and stops Quarters from firing by cutting off an arm. Quarters screams in agony as the chaingun falls out of his remaining hand. He balls his it into a fist, pulls his arm back and throws it at Sleuth, but reconsiders as Sleuth revs the chainsaw.

Sleuth dashes back to Inspector and Dick. Their weapons are raised and firing. Deuce tries to hide in his Battledrobe as Inspector shoots at him repeatedly, while Dick wastes his ammo on Cans. Sleuth chops a bullet in half that would’ve hit him in the head.

“I think the cops are shooting.” Sleuth says, wondering which direction it came from. “But not just at the mobsters.”

“Then let’s get the hell out of here!” Dick shouts.

Inspector and Dick start backpedaling away from the conflict as Sleuth covers them with the incredible speed granted to him by the chainsaw. He chops the heads off an Eggs and Biscuits pair that dinged their way into existence right in front of him. He grimaces about his blood-soaked hands.

Sleuth watches as the three groups try to fight their way away from each other while police flashlights and muzzle flashes close in. The Midnight Crew are pinned down, hiding behind their punckdecks. Hearts Boxcars and Clubs Deuce stand up with guns and axes and grenades, covering Spades Slick’s and Diamonds Droog’s escape into the rest of the park.

Keynoter protects his men with nothing but his large figure and his fists. His men hide behind him and peek around him to fire, but their numbers slowly whittle down from incoming fire regardless. Cans lumbers towards Keynoter, shrugging off bullet fire, and throws a punch. Keynoter easily sidesteps the punch, grasps Cans’ arm and snaps it backwards, sending him to the ground where Keynoter promptly breaks his leg at the knee. Cans’ bellows of pain fill the clearing.

The Felt hide behind a rapidly multiplying multitude of Eggs and Biscuits which rapidly get cut down by concentrated fire from the police. Sleuth notices that some of the Felt’s colors are missing. He only sees Crowbar limping away while giving orders, immense pain and frustration apparent on his face.

“Sleuth,” Inspector calls to him. “Let us egress from this place hastily.”

Sleuth taps the end of the lipstick and pockets it. He turns around and starts running towards Dick and Inspector. He huddles down low, hoping to avoid the closing police perimeter.

Inspector looks ahead, and waves Dick and Sleuth down to hide. Sleuth pulls Dick behind a fat tree. A squad of policemen run towards the gunfight, tommy guns at the ready.

“I could’ve sworn there was somebody here.” One of the policeman says. “We should go slower.”

“Come on, let’s go while there are still people to shoot!” Another says says.

“Our job is to close the perimeter and detain everyone we can, not kill them!”

“It’s us or them!” The officer on point says eagerly.

The policemen run past Sleuth, their bright flashlights concealing him and Dick and Inspector in the contrasting darkness. Sleuth curls around the tree and heads towards the park fence.

Red and blue light up the trees and the surrounding buildings and the deafening sounds of sirens grow louder as they run towards the fence. They huddle up against it, peeking out at a very long line of police cars.

“Where’d we park?” Sleuth asks.

“This way.” Inspector says. He walks huddled against the fence. He stops and raises his head awkwardly, and jumps over.

Sleuth leaps the fence in front of Inspector’s car. He crouches next to it while Inspector fiddles with his keys. He peeks over the hood. “Hurry up, Inspector.” Sleuth whispers. “The cops’re bound to notice us soon.”

“Patience, Sleuth.” Inspector says as he pulls apart every key while holding his sextant in his arms at the same time.

“Freeze!”

Sleuth turns his head. A cop is running at him, pistol drawn. “I’ll pay you back.” He tells Inspector.

“Hmmm?” Inspector looks up as Sleuth smashes the window in with his pistol. “Oh.”

Sleuth unlocks the car doors from the inside. He grabs Inspector’s keys away from him. “I’m driving.” He scoots himself into the driver’s seat and starts the car. Dick jumps into the back and Inspector into the passenger seat. Sleuth puts the car in drive and lurches out from the parking spot.

Cops scramble into cars behind him. Sleuth turns a corner. Seconds later a half dozen cop cars are behind him, lights flashing. The trunk thuds as bullets smash into it.

“You mean to ruin my car as well?” Inspector frantically asks Sleuth.

“You see what I’m talking about?” Dick asks. “No respect for the property of others.”

“Shut the hell up!” Sleuth shouts. Sleuth floors the accelerator and the car roars.

Dick ducks down as the back window shatters. Dick pops back up and looks at the cops behind them. “Hey, Sleuth, I’m sure the cops are impressed you’re driving the speed limit right now, but you think you could step on it?”

“I am!”

“I will accept responsibility for this; I did not purchase a powerful car.”

“I’m slamming down the accelerator and nothing’s happening!”

“Again, I apologize.”

“Sleuth, make a right here.”

“I know where we’re going!”

“Sleuth, just take the right.”

“No, Sleuth, a left.”

“Will you shut up and let me drive?”

“Sleuth, turn right. We can lose them with this shortcut I know.”

“It would be arguably faster if we turned a left at-”

The rearview mirror shatters. The three of them pause as they look at where it used to be.

“As I was saying, if we turned le-”

“What do you know about getting anywhere quick? You’ve never got a parking ticket in your life!”

“I drive safely and lawfully, I will have you know, and I purchase cars accordingly.”

“A lot of good that’s doing us now.”

“I swear, if we make it out of this alive, I am killing both of you.”

“Sleuth! Sleuth! There it i- Aww, dammit, Sleuth, you missed the turn!”

“There is anoth-”

“Turn around. We gotta make this turn.”

“The police are that way!”

“So?”

“Shut up!” Sleuth screams. He throws the wheel to the left. The car skids around the turn, throwing Dick and Inspector into the right side of the car. Sleuth pulls immediately into an alley and turns the lights off and kills the engine. He ducks down against the seat, hoping that Inspector and Dick catch the hint.

Sleuth quiets his breathing and listens. The cop cars make the turn. They drive past the alleyway, and head further down the street. He waits until the only sirens he can hear are coming from Alternia Park.

Sleuth slowly rights himself in the driver’s seat. He starts the car, flips the lights on, and backs out of the alleyway. He starts driving. “Keep a lookout.” Sleuth tells Dick and Inspector.

The three of them are silent for a while as they calm down. Sleuth grips the wheel, not letting his hands shake, spreading blood all over it in the process. He can feel his heartbeat slowing down to normal.

“Were we successful?” Inspector asks after a long silence.

Sleuth clenches his jaw at the question. “It worked. It had to.” Sleuth says. “We did everything we could’ve done. If it wasn’t enough, then we never could’ve done it in the first place.”

Inspector falls silent.

The car ride is quiet and tense as Sleuth keeps an eye out for anything that might’ve chased him from the park. Cops, angry mobsters, financiers with broken moral codes. He drives slowly and carefully as he looks in all directions, careful to avoid attention.

They uneventfully arrive at Sleuth’s office building. Sleuth pulls over and parks the car. He turns the car off, pulls out the keys, and hands them to Inspector.
Inspector looks at Sleuth, a question on his face.

“I don’t rate my odds of survival over the next few days very high. I need to hide out.”

“And what of our odds?”

Sleuth smirks. “Not much better.” He says. “But I lied to them, I brought them there, I destroyed the Sapphire of Alternia in front of their faces. No matter what they want to do to you, they’ll want to do worse to me.”

Inspector nods thoughtfully. “Very well, Sleuth. I shall eagerly await your return.”

“Thanks, Inspector.” Sleuth says. “Make sure Maillady and Deferrer are safe while I’m gone.”

“Of course.” Inspector says.

Sleuth steps out of the car. He ducks into the passenger seat window. Dick looks back at him, question on his face. “What the hell are you looking at?”

Sleuth checks Dick’s coat. He’s bleeding from a gunshot wound. Sleuth points at it. “You should get that checked out.”

Dick looks at his coat, surprised to see the wound. “Great job with that chainsaw, Sleuth, keeping those bullets away from me.” Dick says. “You owe me for the car and now this.”

Sleuth pulls his head out of the car. “Goodbye, Dick.” He says with a pat on the car door. He walks to the sidewalk and nods to Inspector as he scoots over to the driver’s seat. He opens the door to his office building as Inspector drives away.

He walks up the stairs to his floor and opens the door to his office. The place is still a mess. He walks up to the exposed safe and twirls the dial to the combination. He opens the safe, collapses the false back and pulls the lever.

The secret door to his hideout opens. He replaces the false back and closes the safe, giving the dial a good twirl. He takes a few steps down the ladder and pulls the secret door close. He quickly slides down the ladder.

He tugs the cord, and the light fills the room dimly. He takes off his hat and hangs it on one corner of his food cabinet. He takes off his coat and hangs it on the other. He washes his hands in the sink and kicks off his shoes.

He tugs the cord again and lies down on the cot. He takes a deep breath and lets it out.

==>

Well, you did it. You did everything Wealthy Quantifier wanted you to but never bothered to ask.

You have no idea how much longer you’re gonna live though. You don’t pull stunts like you just did on Spades Slick and Snowman and expect to live very long. They might find it in their smoldering black hearts enough hatred to work together to kill you.

You’re not sure if it was worth it. On a personal level.

Sleuth looks into the blackness of his room and loses himself in thought and worry. Eventually, he drifts off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Problem Sleuth: Hide like a coward.

You spend the next week hiding. Like a coward? Sure. But you’re still alive. Spades Slick would have a few choice words for you, but if you lived your life the way a mobster with malleable notions of honor wanted you to you’d be dead fifty times over.

It’s beyond boring. You don’t have anything to do down here. You didn’t even bring down a deck of cards, not that its collected firepower would be a good idea with how you’re trying to hide. So all you do is lie down on the cot and watch the light cord sway subtly back and forth as the wind subtly rocks the building back and forth.

You wait. But you don’t relax. You’ve never been more bored and tense in your life. Your enemies are out there and you’re sure they want you dead and they’ll stop at nothing to make that happen. So the only thing you can do is wait them out, until they give up trying to look for you. You put your hideout to the test. You wait to see if it’ll keep you alive until they finally say enough is enough, that looking for you is too much trouble, and they settle just to kill you on sight.

You wait as loud voices flow from your office to your hideout on at least a dozen occasions. You wait as they crash around, throwing everything in your office against the walls and floor and ceilings. You wait as they get chased off with gunfire a few out of those dozen times. You wait as smoke fills your hideout, all the while you’re breathing through your coat, hoping the fire in your office will get put out before you choke and die. You wait as the smoke settles into ash, and the loud voices stop coming altogether.

Eventually, after a week, as best as you can tell, you decide that it’s time. It’s time to come out of hiding and hope for the best.

Sleuth puts his pants up to his nose and takes a big whiff. It smells faintly of ash and week-old sweat and salt and dirt and blood and dampness. It’s one of the most unique smells Sleuth’s ever encountered. He pulls the pants away from his nose and slides them onto his legs. Even after the best job Sleuth has ever done washing his clothes with just a sink, they’re clammy and stiff.

Sleuth buttons up his shirt, slides on his belt, pulls on his tie, puts on his socks, dons his shoes, and throws on his coat. He walks to his food cabinet, now empty of its basic staples, and picks up his hat. He runs a hand over his head and face, noting how well it’s healing, and adjusts his hat until it fits just right.

He grabs his gun, his key ring, his lipstic-

==>

Dammit, for the last time, it’s Dame’s, not yours!

Somebody else’s lipstick, and a few scraps of paper and puts them in his coat pockets. Everything he brought into the hideout now on his person, he tucks in his shirt, adjusts his tie, fits his coat over his shoulders, and walks to the ladder.

He climbs it up one rung at a time. He reaches the top, and pulls the secret door. Sleuth pulls at the door several more times. After several forceful tries it breaks free of whatever was jamming it close. He pulls it open slowly, straining as it scrapes against the floor and pulls the warped hinges off the wall.

Sleuth squeezes through the crack in the door, almost tripping over his filing cabinet, now a charred husk. His office is totally incinerated. Sleuth feels a sense of near completeness. His home, and now his workplace, have been destroyed by this case. All that remains is his life.

Sleuth pulls the door knob to his office. The door doesn’t budge. Sleuth kicks down the door to his office. It breaks easily. Sleuth walks to Ace Dick’s office. He opens without knocking and looks around. Ace Dick is nowhere to be found. He walks to the desk and picks up the phone. The line to the receiver is severed and frayed. Sleuth thinks about it and concludes that it wasn’t the work of any mobsters. Sleuth replaces the receiver, even though it’s completely pointless.

Sleuth turns around and walks to back to the office door. As he reaches for the handle it suddenly opens. A frightened yelp almost causes Sleuth to startle. “Sleuth!” Maillady says. “You’re alive!”

“What?” Sleuth takes a step back from the door. “Surprised to see me? I’m not that easy to kill.”

“But you’re supposed to be hiding out.” Maillady says, stepping inside Dick’s office. “Like a coward.”

Sleuth puts his hands in his pockets. “I expect lip like that from Dick, but not from you.”

“Well, that’s what Dick said you were doing.” Maillady says. “What were you doing?”

“Hiding.”

“Like a coward?”

“Of course not.”

“Like what then?”

“I hid,” Sleuth tips his hat down and looks at Maillady from beneath the brim while his hand searches through his coat for a cigarette. He pats both of his coat pockets to no effect, and searches both sets of his pants pockets. “Like...,” Sleuth trails off, struggling to find an appropriate phrase. “My life depended on it.” Sleuth says in his best hardboiled growl.

Maillady looks at him. She turns her attention to Dick’s desk and starts unloading stuff onto it. “You’re really out of it. That was terrible.”

Sleuth sighs. “A case like this’ll do that to a guy.” Sleuth says. “I see you’re alright.”

“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be?” Maillady says, placing several sets of newspapers on Dick’s desk.

“Both gangs swore they’d be out for everyone I knew.”

“Oh, right.” Maillady says. “That.”

Sleuth cocks a brow. “What?”

“I handled it.”

“Handled what?” Sleuth asks.

“You know.” Maillady says. “The murder stuff. Once you scare off Hearts Boxcars, other mobsters just don’t compare.” She says lightly.

Sleuth narrows his eyes at Maillady. “What are you hiding from me?”

“Nothing!” Maillady says. “They came after me. I thought they wanted my mail, so I swung my letter opener at them like I did with Hearts Boxcars and they ran away like the Prospit army. That’s all that happened, Sleuth.”

Sleuth doesn’t buy the story but can’t latch onto anything to challenge it. “Right.” Sleuth says. “So what happened while I was gone?” Sleuth says, walking towards the spread of newspapers on Dick’s desk.

“Take a look.” Maillady says. “I kept all your mail. And your newspapers. Since you weren’t around to accept them. And since you don’t have a permanent address anymore.”

Sleuth picks up the newspaper for the day after he started hiding. Massacre in Alternia Park. Twenty-seven dead. Notorious mobsters Hearts Boxcars and Clubs Deuce arrested in aftermath. In the photo Anarchy Repressor holds his hands on his hips in an authoritative manner while he smiles like he owns the place. Behind him is a large pile of fat green corpses, obviously more than twenty-seven.

“You should introduce me to him.” Maillady says. “He’s the talk of the town.”

“You’re acquainted. You turned him down.” Sleuth says. “He’s less spectacular when I’m not making his career.”

“I think I should reconsider.”

“He didn’t do anything. All he did was show up.” Sleuth says, feeling a twinge of jealousy.

Sleuth drops the newspaper on the desk and looks at the others. Notorious mobsters Hearts Boxcars and Clubs Deuce escape jail. String of Keynote Bank robberies continues. Fire at man’s office leaves questions unanswered. Suspect in murdered courier case arrested. Local woman fights off Felt with lipstick, her inspiring tale of courage inside.

“Looks like things have been busy.” Sleuth says.

“This town really falls apart whenever you’re gone, doesn’t it, Sleuth?”

Sleuth chuckles unenthusiastically. “Yeah. Everybody’s out to kill each other instead of just me.” Sleuth says. He pushes away from the desk and locks eyes with Maillady. “You still have it?”

“Well of course I do, Sleuth!” She says with mock-offense. “It’s right here.” Sleuth watches carefully as she pulls two pearl bracelets off her wrist and a white pin with a blue tip off her lapel. She lets the pearls go, and they float quickly to the growing white pin. She collects the expanding pieces and puts the Sapphire of Alternia in Sleuth’s outstretched hand. “I kept it safe.”

Sleuth grabs Maillady’s hand as she hands him the Sapphire. “You really pulled through for me, Maillady.” Sleuth says, letting her hand go. “I can’t thank you enough.”

“Ya sure?” Maillady picks at her lip. “I can think of a few ways.”

“Oh yeah?” Sleuth asks. “And what’d you have in mind?”

She folds her arms. “A cut of your payday. For what I earned holding onto that thing.”

“My thanks isn’t enough?”

Maillady glares. “No.”

“We’ll see about that.” Sleuth says.

“So now what are you going to do?”

Sleuth grabs the Sapphire of Alternia in his pocket. “The job isn’t done yet. I still have to take this to Wealthy Quantifier. Once it’s in her hands, it’s her problem.” Sleuth says. Sleuth looks at the clock. It’s not moving. “I should get going. I’ve kept her waiting long enough, and holding onto this thing makes me nervous.”

“Now you know how I felt.” Maillady says. “All week long.”

“I said thanks, didn’t I?” Sleuth says, walking towards Dick’s door.

“So where should I deliver your mail from now on?” Maillady asks.

“Inspector’s office.” Sleuth blurts out. “Until I find a new place to stay.”

“You could always-”

“Thanks, but I’ll be fine.” Sleuth says as he opens Dick’s door.

“Take care, Sleuth.”

Sleuth waves behind him as he walks out of the office. He walks to Pickle Inspector’s office and throws the door open without knocking. Nobody’s inside. Sleuth walks to the phone and picks up the receiver. He hovers a finger above the dial as he tries to remember the secret to Inspector’s symbographical dialing system. He puts a finger in a hole and spins the dial once, and then several more times, confident that he dialed Wealthy Quantifier’s number correctly.

The phone rings. It rings and rings and rings and rings. No matter how much Sleuth waits it doesn’t stop ringing.

“Son of a bitch!” Sleuth slams down the phone. He rests his fists on the desk as he tries to keep himself from throwing the phone across the room.

The phone rings. Sleuth picks it up immediately.

“Hello?” Sleuth says.

There’s no response for several moments.

“Then what the hell did you call for?” Sleuth asks angrily.

“Problem Sleuth, please, have patience.” A woman on the other line says. It’s Wealthy Quantifier. “I could not reach the phone in time.”

“A week’s a damn long time to get to the phone.”

Quantifier chuckles on the other end. “Yes, I suppose you are right.” She says. Sleuth almost snaps at her casual attitude. “Do you have news about the matter I hired you for? I have been anxiously waiting to hear from you.”

“Yeah.” Sleuth says, biting his tongue. “I’ve got it. I’m more than ready to hand it over. Just tell me where.”

“Excellent.” She says. “Meet me in front of Keynote Bank.”

Sleuth scratches his head. “Are you serious?”

“Of course I am.”

“Aren’t you worried about your husband?”

“Of course not.”

Sleuth shrugs. “As long as you pay me you can take it wherever you want.” Sleuth says. “You are going to pay me.” Sleuth says, half asking, half demanding.

“Of course. I will pay in full for all services rendered.” Quantifier says.

“Great. I’ll see you there.”

“Very well.” She says. “Thank you, Problem Sleuth.”

“Sure.” Sleuth says. He hangs up.

Sleuth walks out of Pickle Inspector’s office, aggravated by Wealthy Quantifier’s casual attitude to the hell he had to put up with on her account. He walks down the stairs of the office building and exits onto the street. He hails a cab. It pulls up slowly and gently to the curb. Sleuth steps inside. “Keynote Bank’s Corporate Offices.” He tells the driver.

He looks out the window as the cab gently pulls back into traffic. It’s much more relaxing than the cab rides he’s used to. He looks forward and notices a crutch resting in the passenger seat. His mind starts working as he looks at the driver, and then at her eyes in the rearview mirror. “Deferrer.” He greets.

“Oh, now he recognizes me. It’s not like I did him any huge favors last week or had anything happen to me.” Deferrer says.

“Hey, it’s not so easy whe-”

“Is this the first time you’ve been out since you started hiding like a coward?”

Sleuth winces. “Yeah.”

“Then how come your first stop wasn’t Alternia General?”

“How come you’re not there now?” Sleuth asks, dodging the question.

“Because some hardboiled jackass had somebody I hate pull me out of there. Because it wasn’t safe, he said.” Deferrer says. “Or did you forget all this?”

“It’s nice to see you too, Deferrer.” Sleuth says. “Glad to see you’re okay.”

“Don’t give me any of that. I could be resting in a bed right now doped up on painkillers if it weren’t for you.” She says. “If it weren’t for you I wouldn’t have gotten a knife in my gut in the first place.”

“If it weren’t for me you’d be dead.”

“And I’m real happy for it, but you’re forgetting that I still got stabbed because of you.” Deferrer says, her words dripping with pent-up anger.

Sleuth breathes in while he holds his tongue. “There’s nothing stopping you from being in a bed right now.” Sleuth says.

“And don’t I know it.” Deferrer says. “But if I’m going to be in intense pain because of, you know, being pulled out of the hospital, I might as well be in intense pain while I do my job.”

“So is that why you’re mad at me?”

Deferrer pauses. “Yes.” She says, gripping the steering wheel tightly.

“And that’s why you’re driving like Pickle Inspector had fallen asleep at the wheel?”

Deferrer pauses. “Don’t even say anything about it.” She says. “This is your fault.”

Sleuth throws up his hands. “Alright, sorry I brought it up.” He says. “Sorry I put you through that.”

“I’ll be fine with it once I’m not in searing pain all the time.”

“How’s it healing up?”

“I’ll be fine.” Deferrer says. “It’s just, well, the pain.”

“You’ve mentioned it.”

“Doesn’t make it hurt any less.”

“Right.” Sleuth acknowledges. “So did you have any trouble with Spades Slick or Snowman?”

“No.” Deferrer says. “Maillady took me to some place and hid us out there for a few days.”

“Really?” Sleuth asks.

“Surprising, I know.” Deferrer says. “It didn’t stop her from complaining about me to my face though. She kept on grumbling and sighing about how you said to keep me safe and how she was only doing it for you and on and on and on and on.”

“I’m surprised she actually took time off to hide out.”

“It was only a day, Sleuth. After that, it was back to the mail.” Deferrer says with a thrust of her hand through the air. She sighs. “That’s another reason why I’m driving out here instead of resting in a bed. It’ll be painful, but at least I can run away from your enemies instead of relying on somebody who hates me to fend them off. Another thing that’s all your fault.”

Sleuth smirks and shakes his head. “Why can’t my two favorite girls play nice with each other?”

“Go to hell, Sleuth.”

“It’s really tearing me apart.”

“Go to hell.” She growls. “Or do I have to lay on the guilt trip even thicker?”

“Do your worst.” Sleuth says with a grin.

“And after I take a knife in the gut for him he won’t even take me out for dinner! What does a girl have to do to get a guy to notice him?” She says. “Sleuth, I’m starting to get the impression you’re not interested.”

“Aww, Deferrer. That hurts.” Sleuth says in a mocking tone. “It cuts me really deep.”

Deferrer grips the steering wheel tighter. Her black knuckles almost turn white. “So why are you going to Keynote Bank?” She asks, changing the subject. “Didn’t you steal the Sapphire of Alternia from the guy who owns the place?”

“Wealthy Quantifier wants to meet me there.” Sleuth says. “I have no idea why. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Well, whatever the case,” Deferrer says, pulling over at the curb, “Here we are.”

“Took you long enough.” Sleuth says as he pats down his pockets.

“Enough, Sleuth.”

Sleuth finishes searching through his pockets. “I still don’t have any money.”

Deferrer sighs. “Let’s go, you mooch. I’m not doing this again, not after what happened the last time.” She says. She curls her hand backwards over the seat and claps it at Sleuth. “Collateral.”

Sleuth pulls out his key and puts it in Deferrer’s hand.

“No, no. The big one.”

Sleuth takes the key back and puts the keyring in her hand.

“There we go.” She says. “I’ll see you later, Sleuth. And you better have backpay.”

Sleuth steps out of the car onto the sidewalk. “Thanks for the ride.” He says.

“No problem.” Sleuth watches as Deferrer carefully looks into traffic and slowly pulls away from the curb. She looks back at Sleuth and shakes her finger at Sleuth. Not a word, she mouths. Sleuth smirks. Deferrer rolls her eyes as she joins traffic.

Sleuth turns around. Keynote Bank is in front of him, the skyscraper looking like it’s reaching over Sleuth from this close. He scans the sidewalk, and the only people he sees are businessmen, secretaries, window cleaners, newspaper salesmen, shoppers. No tall, leggy, mysterious dames in sight.

Sleuth walks inside Keynote Bank. He walks up to the receptionist’s desk and leans a forearm on it and puts on his best smile. He waits as the receptionist looks up.

“Hi.” Sleuth says. “Have you-”

“Oh, no.” She says. “Not you.”

“What?” Sleuth asks.

“Get out of here. You’re not allowed in here.”

“Why not?”

“You’re joking, right?” She asks. She picks up the phone and dials a few numbers. “Leave now or security will escort you off the premises.”

“Fine, fine.” Sleuth says as he backs away from the desk. He starts walking towards the exit as rent-a-cops watch him closely.

Sleuth leaves Keynote Bank. He looks around and stuffs his hands in his pockets. He walks to a wall and sits down on its base.

==>

Why are you not surprised?

She’s hard to get a hold of. One of the hardest in your experience.

She was probably going to stiff you for your money anyway. The check’ll probably bounce or it’ll get conveniently lost, and she’ll blame the bank and her husband for it.

Sleuth starts thinking about what it is he’s supposed to do, what it is Wealthy Quantifier still wants out of him, before he stops that line of thought. He did everything he was supposed to. He’s done his job. Sleuth makes up his mind to not do a damn thing more.

Wallstreet Keynoter walks out of his bank and looks around. He spots Sleuth and walks towards him. Sleuth stands up, hand around his key.

“Sleuth,” Keynoter asks tiredly. “What are you doing here? You’ll understand if I’m not exactly happy to see you.”

“Your wife told me to come here.”

“Of course, to take it back.” Keynoter answers to himself. “Has she shown up yet?”

Sleuth shakes his head.

Keynoter sighs. “Well, it’s obvious what she wants to happen here.” He says. “I love that woman, but sometimes she is absolutely infuriating.”

“I’ve noticed.” Sleuth says. “I’ve been noticing for two damn weeks.”

Keynoter chuckles. “Try millennia, Sleuth.” He says. “Do you know why she’s not here yet, and why I am?”

“I can’t really say I care.” Sleuth says.

“Neither can I.” Keynoter says. “But you’re here because you and I are supposed to talk. A real heartfelt, man to man conversation between former soldier and former general about what happened between us, where we bare our hearts and souls to each other and learn about each other and ourselves.”

“Her idea?” Sleuth asks, already knowing the answer.

"Of course it was.” Keynoter says. “She thinks you can convince me I was wrong.”

“Like hell.” Sleuth answers after a moment. “I don’t have anything to say to you, and even if I did I’m finished playing her games.”

“Then we’re both on the same page.” Keynoter says.

Sleuth stares at Keynoter. In front of him is the man who asked him to help get an unimaginable weapon of war and symbol of absolute authority in a city that left both behind. The man who stole it from his wife, getting a man killed in the process, and tried to pin it on someone else. And Sleuth doesn’t have a thing to say to him.

“Why’d you help me, Keynoter?” Sleuth asks the only question he can think of. “Last week, you knew it was the fake. You had to have known.”

Keynoter rubs his nose with his forearm. “And what? Leave you to Spades Slick and Snowman? I don’t have the heart to leave anyone to their mercies.”

“You could have if you wanted to.”

“The Sapphire of Alternia would’ve fallen into their hands if I did, and I couldn’t let that happen.” Keynoter says. “Don’t think it didn’t cross my mind.” Keynoter stares grimly.

Sleuth clenches his jaw. “So you’re not angry.”

“I’m furious.” Keynoter says. “You lied to me.”

“I had good reason.”

“I’m more than well aware. Who do you think I’m more infuriated with right now? You, for lying to my face, or my wife, for putting you up to it?” He says. “I don’t understand her at all. What’s more important than getting rid of the filth that’s ruining this city? To hell with them building it. I live here and I want them gone.”

“Keynoter,” Sleuth says suddenly. “You killed thousands of men at a time with that thing.” He spreads his arms. “Maybe you haven’t noticed, but there’s not enough of us left to use it just to smash Spades Slick’s casino to pieces. Not unless you want to hurt a lot of innocent people while you’re at it.”

Keynoter breathes in deeply and exhales. “I’m at my wit’s end, Sleuth. They’ll be the death of all of us if we don’t do anything about it.” He says. “What else is there? I’m not content to do nothing.”

Sleuth shrugs and shakes his head. “I don’t have an answer for you.”

“Neither does my wife.” Keynoter says under his breath. “So you’re on my wife’s side in all of this?”

“She hired me first, if that’s what you’re asking.” Sleuth says.

“That wasn’t what I was asking.”

“I’m not taking any side.” Sleuth says. He smirks and tries to put a cigarette in his mouth, remembering he has none. “I’ve had to deal with plenty of spats between man and woman in my line of work, and I learned damned quick taking a side is a fast way to finishing a job empty-handed.”

Keynoter folds his arms. “I don’t believe that money and professionalism were the only principles guiding you, Sleuth.”

“Only principles worth keeping.”

“Liar.”

“Guess you’ll just have to take my word for it.” Sleuth says, hoping Keynoter’ll catch the hint.

Keynoter grunts thoughtfully. Keynoter rubs the back of his head. “Sleuth, I’m busy. The Midnight Crew’s new pastime is robbing my banks, and their goons in District Attorney’s office are trying to pin down something they can charge me for. And my legal counsel isn’t around to help me.” Keynoter glances down somberly.

“Did Lawyer make it?”

“He’s in bad shape. He’s already lost the leg and it look like he might lose more than that.” Keynoter says. “I didn’t know how much I relied on him until now.”

“He’ll pull through.” Sleuth says.

“Thanks for saying.” Keynoter says. “Goodbye, Sleuth. I hope the next time we meet I’ll have reason to be friendlier.” Keynoter turns around. He walks back into his bank.

As soon as he’s gone Sleuth slumps back down against the base of the wall.

==>

Will it always be this hard for you to deal with him?

You’re too damn hardboiled to let anything like authority rattle you. Problem is when it does.

Sleuth watches as a shining white car pulls up to the curb. A chauffeur steps out of the driver’s seat and walks to the passenger side door facing the curb. He puts a gloved hand to the door and opens it up. Two heels step out onto the sidewalk and the chauffeur’s free hand catches an elegant white hand. Wealthy Quantifier steps onto the sidewalk to much attention from passersby.

She and the chauffeur trade words. After nodding his assent the chauffeur steps back into the car and drives off. Wealthy Quantifier walks towards Sleuth, one long leg in front of the other. Sleuth pushes himself up into a standing position.

“Apologies, Problem Sleuth, I was slightly delayed.” She says. “I hope I did not keep you waiting for too long.”

“Has anybody told you you’re a real joker?”

“No, I am not exceptionally well-known for my-” She cuts herself short. “Ah, I see. I will not pretend you have no reason to complain but I will say I was attempting to be polite.”

“I’m not looking for polite clients. I’m looking for forthcoming, straightforward, and paying clients.” Sleuth says. “So far, you’re oh-for-three. Can we just drop the polite routine and get down to business?”

“No.” Wealthy Quantifier says. “While payment is within your reach it costs you nothing to indulge me my niceties, regardless of how insincere they may appear to you.”

Sleuth rolls his eyes and head to one side. “No, no, it’s no problem at all.” He says in mocking droll. “Why, I just finished talking with Wallstreet Keynoter. He and I passed the time while I waited for you.”

“Is that so?” Wealthy Quantifier asks annoyingly eagerly. “What did you two talk about?”

Sleuth rights his head. “We talked about you.” Sleuth says. “And the hell you put us through. Keynoter doesn’t get it and I don’t either.”

“I suppose you think I owe you an explanation?”

Sleuth nods. “You made me and him enemies. That’s the least you owe me. Not all you owe me though.” Sleuth clarifies. “Don’t think telling me is going to pass for payment.”

“Which explanation would you like to hear?” Quantifier asks. “I have several to offer.”

“The real one.”

“Very well.” Quantifier agrees. “The Felt and the Midnight Crew are immediate problems but not lasting ones. Wishing that they no longer influenced the city is a noble goal, but using the Sapphire of Alternia for that purpose is a shortsighted solution. Using the threat of force to enforce order in this city is exactly the crime Wallstreet Keynoter accuses the gangs that run this city of committing, and the exact crime he would commit in forcibly removing or killing them.” Quantifier says. “This position is untenable to one such as myself and to a man of his reputation and honor. I will not allow him to leverage force to win this city, and it is critical he eventually realize this himself.”

“And why can’t you tell him this, instead of putting me in his way?” Sleuth asks in aggravation.

“He respects you. His current anger will never diminish the respect and pride he has towards you. He will always listen to what you have to say, no matter how he feels at the time.” She says. “I am his wife, and I unfortunately can not say I have the same privilege.”

Sleuth rubs his head. “So that’s what this all was? This was all just to teach him a lesson? More than two dozen men dead, relationships tested, some broken, just to teach your husband a lesson?” Sleuth asks. “Just who the hell do you think you people are?”

“Problem Sleuth, you mus-”

“Monarchy?” Sleuth interrupts.

The question halts Wealthy Quantifier in her tracks. She takes a few moments to collect herself. “I,” She starts, “Misspoke.”

“Then what?” Sleuth asks angrily. “I’ve got half the town wanting me dead, so you better have a damn good reason for all of this, just to make me think that maybe, all in all, it might’ve been worth it.”

“My husband...” Quantifier hesitates, “He cannot have it.”

“Why not?”

“It is no longer his.”

“Quit talking around me.” Sleuth says. “Answer me straight. Just the way I like it. No games, no tricks, just the straight truth.”

“Problem Sleuth, we are all exiles from our original home. The moment we arrived on this new planet, this new home, we were all bound by an unwritten contract we were not consciously aware of but we all understood and agreed to on an instinctual level and have been living by ever since. You are likely more aware of it than most.”

Sleuth thinks for a second. “Leave it all behind.”

“Exactly. My husband seeking his former scepter is a violation of this agreement. It still bears his name but it is his no longer. Its purpose with him was served and was completed when he surrendered.” She says. Wealthy Quantifier hesitates, like she doesn’t want to continue. “But, Sleuth, you must not repeat this to anyone else. Even though its purpose with my husband was finished, that does not mean it is now without purpose. It has a new one. I can not tell you what it is. Just trust that I did not waste lives solely for the sake of my husband.”

Sleuth takes a moment to take it all in. He shrugs. “That’s not much of an answer. How do I know it was worth it?”

“I suppose you do not and never will. I will not say anymore on the matter.” Quantifier says. She opens her purse. “But I hope this will set your mind at rest.” She takes out a check and offers it to Sleuth.

Sleuth takes the check and reads it.

==>

Ten big ones! This is almost double what you were owed! You’re rich! You’re rich! You could buy a house and a car and-

And you can’t let Dame find out about this.

Sleuth puts the check inside his coat. “It helps. Doesn’t make it all better though.” He says. “I’ve still got a town that wants me dead.”

“You may find that your problems will be lighter than you expect.”

Sleuth cocks a brow.

“Oh, please. I am not some powerless socialite whose reach only extends to organizing charity events. While you were hiding I impressed upon your enemies the need for restraint and forgiveness, for you and everyone you care for.” She says. “They are still rogues and villains, so I can not say your problems will be solved, but the load should be lighter.”

“Thanks.” Sleuth says genuinely.

“Now,” Quantifier says, holding out her hand.

Problem Sleuth: Finish the job.

You put your hand in your pocket and bundle up the Sapphire of Alternia in a tight wad. You reach for Wealthy Quantifier’s hand and place it there, doing your best to keep it out of sight.

You leave it in her hand, twelve aspects and an immense sense of power going with it.

The hardest job you ever took is finally over.

Wealthy Quantifier swiftly puts it into her purse. “Excellent, Problem Sleuth. I must say, I am very impressed with your work. While I knew you had defeated Mobster Kingpin and knew that was no small feat, I found the stories of how you did so difficult to believe.”

“What’s so hard about it?” Sleuth asks.

“The... um.” Quantifier stammers. “Never mind. Nonetheless, seeing firsthand what you did while in my employ, I now better understand why you have your reputation as a problem sleuth. It is very well-earned.”

“Thanks for the words.” Sleuth says. He smiles. “I’m usually much happier to be flattered after I get my money.”

“Naturally.”

Something occurs to Sleuth. “Wait, firsthand? What are you talking about?”

“I was closely tracking your progress.”

“I knew that, but you didn’t say you were watching me the whole time.”

“I was not. That was a small exaggeration of my involvement, but is still mostly accurate.” Quantifier says.

“Then how were you keeping tabs on me?”

“You do not know?” She asks amusedly. She starts laughing lightly. “I thought you, with your reputation as a problem sleuth, would have noticed by now.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

Quantifier stops laughing. “Think, Problem Sleuth.” She says. “How would I have known your progress?”

Problem Sleuth: Think.

You’re not about to let a mysterious dame get the best of you and laugh at you for something you haven’t figured out yet. You really rack your brain trying to figure it out.

Maybe she has a line on Spades Slick, and, no, he’s a stubborn jackass. Maybe Snowman? Do they talk at all? Or maybe she’s got a few cops wrapped around her finger, and, no, any cop willing to talk to her would do the same for money. Maybe Ace Dick? Or Pickle Inspector? They wouldn’t rat on you to a client, would they? No, of course not, they’d never do something like that.

Mayb-

“Them two?” Sleuth asks suddenly.

Quantifier starts laughing again. “I was committed to your success, Problem Sleuth.” She says. “I made certain you were always making progress.”

“You had my cab driver and my mailwoman spy on me?”

“Sleuth, you act as if that was some great crime.” She says. “All I did was ask them to do what they were already doing: helping you in every way possible. They agreed. It took almost no convincing at all.”

Sleuth rubs his head. “They’re my friends.”

“And you should thank them for the many ways they aided you.”

Sleuth sighs in frustration. “You could’ve had Maillady just take the Sapphire to you after I hid out.” Sleuth says, frustrated by the revelation.

“She did.” Quantifier says, trying to hold back a smile. “I returned it to her as soon as I knew you were emerging from hiding.”

“But why?” Sleuth asks. “Giving it back to me is pointless.”

“Problem Sleuth, Problem Sleuth, Problem Sleuth. You would be angry with her if I simply took it, and I could not let her take your anger on my behalf.” Wealthy Quantifier says. “And I considered it an important part of our agreement that you deliver it to me personally. And I very much wanted to see the look on your face when I told you.”

Sleuth groans. “You know, I don’t think I ever want to work for you again.” Sleuth says. “I know the money’s good, but nothing personal, you were the biggest pain in the ass client I’ve ever had.”

“I certainly was.” Quantifier admits. “I will accommodate you for the time being, Problem Sleuth. If all goes well, I will not need to hire you again.”

The comment doesn’t sit right with Sleuth. “What I meant to say was,” Sleuth says. “I’m not working for you again.”

“Very well, Problem Sleuth.” Wealthy Quantifier says. She extends a hand to shake.

Sleuth grabs it and shakes firmly.

“You have an excellent day.” She says. “Thank you for your service. I will recommend you to others, for a job excellently well done.”

“Goodbye, Wealthy Quantifier.” Sleuth says.

Wealthy Quantifier walks into Keynote Bank. Sleuth puts his hands in his pockets and shuffles around a bit on the sidewalk. He hails a cab and gets inside. He tells the driver to take him to his office.

He looks out the window.

==>

The sun is high in the sky, shining brightly on the city full of people making a living, trying to find their own way through life. A life governed not by kings or queens or duty and fealty, but through freedom and choice and independence.

You look out at the streets, and you think about how easy it was to build this city. How a wrathful man had a rare moment of magnanimity and laid down the first foundation and invited everyone to live here. And how everyone did and returned a small spark of life to a dead planet.

You’re Problem Sleuth. You just finished butting heads with the most powerful figures in this city, pushing aside their agendas with fists, guns, and charisma, to do what you set out to do, what you were paid to do, all the while staring your enemies in the face and never blinking as they tried their hardest to bring you down. They failed.

And now, with your reputation as the top problem sleuth in the city secured, it’s time to ease up and rest on your laurels. At least for a few days.

“Here we are.” The driver says. “This place yours? Doesn’t look like you’ll be doing a lot of work here.”

Sleuth looks out the other window. Habit brought him here but habit didn’t remember that Spades Slick torched his office. “You’re right about that.” Sleuth searches through his pockets for money. “Dammit.” He says.

“What’s the big idea?” The driver asks.

A car suddenly pulls over in front of the taxi and a tire jumps the curb. A woman storms out of the car and sticks her head through the window. She looks at the meter and gives the driver some money. “Sorry that this tramp can’t pay you. Not surprising at all since he never seems to have any money even though he says he’s working all the time.”

“Sorry.” Sleuth says to the driver.

“Just get out.” The driver says.

Sleuth steps out of the cab and onto the street.

“Again, sorry, about that.” The woman says as the cab driver takes off down the street. She folds her arms across her chest and turns slowly to Sleuth, look of fury, rage, anger, hatred, wrath filling her normally pretty face into the picture of fear and terror. “Just where the hell have you been?” She asks Sleuth in an angry whisper.

“Hey, Dame.” Sleuth stuffs his hands in his coat pockets. “I’ve been working. You got a smoke?”

“Working?” She asks angrily as she flips open her purse and quickly gives Sleuth a cigarette. “Is that what you call not talking to me for three weeks?”

Sleuth sticks the cigarette in his mouth. “Yeah, what of-”

“Do you know what I’ve been through the last two weeks?” Dame starts screaming. “I’ve been looking for your no-good, good-for-nothing, layabout, lazy, bad boyfriend butt and I’ve been having a hell of time doing it. I went up to Spades Slick and asked him straight if he knew-” Dame starts ranting incoherently.

Sleuth looks at Dame, more observing her than anything else. He takes the cigarette out of his mouth and puts it in his pocket. He grabs Dame by an arm.

“Get your hands off me you-”

Sleuth pulls her against his body despite her struggling and kisses her. Dame wails at his chest for a few moments before wrapping her arms around his neck and returning the kiss. Sleuth looks into Dame’s eyes. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too.” Dame says, looking sleepily at Sleuth. “But do you really think kisses like that are going to get you out of this one?”

“Dame,” Sleuth says with a large smirk. “You know I’ve got more than just kisses.”

“Oh, yeah?” Dame puts a finger on his chest. “Like what?”

“Like this.” Sleuth pulls out the lipstick and gives it to Dame.

“Oh.” Dame says as she holds it in her hand. “Oh my. This is,” Dame says as she looks it over. “This is, isn’t it?”

“I always get the best for my girl.”

“Oh, goodness.” She says in disbelief.

Sleuth stares off in the distance for a moment. “I’m starving. Let’s get lunch.”

“I thought you’d never ask.” She says with a smile.

Sleuth lets go of the embrace and walks Dame to the car and opens the door for her. “You know, I forgot I had this thing.” He says as he helps Dame get in. “It would’ve come in handy while I was working this case.”

“Get over it, Sleuth.” Dame says as Sleuth closes the door. Sleuth steps to the driver’s side and gets inside. “It’s not like you were using it anyway.”

Sleuth puts the car in drive, eases the car off the curb, and pulls out into traffic.

“So what were you doing?”

“Let me tell you all about it.”

THE END

Chapter Text

The woman looks at herself in the mirror. She wears a sporting outfit, a lovely khaki jacket that protects from the elements while still allowing her to be flexible. She wraps a necklace around her neck. Not the one she hired one of her husband’s most valuable men to find, a simple one with little adornment. It’s foolhardy, she thinks, to carry it where she is going, but she cannot leave her neck bare.

She dons a hat, a light one to keep the sun out of her eyes. She slings her purse over her shoulder and places a canteen of water inside. She walks down the stairs of her home, satisfied to see all of her things returned to where they belong.

She walks out the door and greets her driver. He bows politely, as he always does. He opens the door to the backseat for her but she walks around to the driver’s side. She informs him she will not be needing his services today and to take the rest of the day off. The driver agrees, but with questions on his mind.

As she drives she considers the words of her husband earlier in the day. He demanded to know her reasoning of why she took it back, after he spent so much time trying to convince her it was dangerous for her to keep it around her neck.

She had agreed to do it, she told him, to set his mind at rest. She did not need to carry it on her person at all times, it was true. However, she did not know that that was part of his plan to attempt to take it from her. He had breached her trust.

Her husband apologized then, but told her it was important to be rid of the violent criminals plaguing this city. He begged her to tell him what it was she needed it for. If he understood the reason, perhaps he could have spared everyone the trouble he caused.

Against all her very being, she refused to tell him. She refused to say anything of it. More than anything else, the plan had to be kept a secret.

She arrives at a garage full of rugged vehicles on the outskirts of the city. The gruff man who owns the business greets her. He recognizes her and nearly kneels down before she tells him to stop.

She pays good money to rent one of his vehicles. She pays more to venture out alone. She pays more to make certain he asks no questions. He asks what it’s all for, and she reminds him, no questions asked.

She drives along a memorized route, one of directions and bearings rather than one of landmarks and familiar sights. The desert is calm this time of the year, although the same cannot be said for its fauna.

She pulls over next to a large dune as the sun is setting, mentally checking every step of her journey. She concludes she is in the right place, and she steps out, boots sinking inches into the sand. The wind picks up. She will have to be quick if she wishes to leave before the sandstorm arrives. It will be impossible to find her way back to the city once it begins.

She climbs to the top of the dune and begins pushing sand aside, brushing it away as she searches for something buried beneath it. She finds a plate of faded black metal and begins unearthing it. Her work reveals a green icon, a window with a roof in the style of the former inhabitants of this planet, a pane in the center with a rectangular cutout.

She finds a wheel and begins turning it. The heavy metal door comes loose, and she exerts herself to open it through the sand.

Wealthy Quantifier steps inside the Sgrub Command Station as the light from the outside slowly changes from a bright red to a dim green and purple. She first learned about it while she was wandering the wastes, after someone dutifully passed along the information of where it was to her, like most other secrets she’s come to guard. She set out to find it immediately afterward. After a few years of searching, she did. She rarely comes here but over the centuries she’s accumulated many visits.

For its size it’s bare. There are only a few rooms, and most of them are nondescript save for components to the command terminal she sees right now. Twelve screens, only one on, following the children through their adventure. She thinks about typing in a few commands but reconsiders. She’s already reached the limit of her usefulness on this end.

==>

It has always been a matter of great curiosity to you where the alphabet represented by the letters on the keyboard originated. Though you understand them, they are from no language you recognize.

She’s here for something else. Once, over the course of many years visiting the station and typing on that terminal, she accidentally struck the ‘v’ and ‘alt’ keys in sequence. After wandering through the rooms in search of where the loud mechanical sounds came from, she found a vault. Inside was food and other supplies, but more importantly to her now, an obscure and completely safe place to store important items.

She walks through the dark rooms to the vault. The LED on the keypad is a flickering dimly red. She feels her way toward it and taps the combination, six twelve digit strings of numbers that are impossible to guess or remember. The LED blips green, and the vault door clicks loudly and nudges itself forward a half-inch. She pulls it open and walks inside.

The vault is pitch black. A fluorescent light centuries too old buzzes on as it draws from the station’s dwindling power reserves. A dim light-blue glow reveals shelves of items too dangerous or too fragile to go outside. She opens the clip on her purse and pulls out the Sapphire of Alternia. She walks to an empty spot on a shelf, and places it there.

There’s a green flash and the room is bright like the station was brand new and at full power. “Good evening, White Queen.” A white voice behind her speaks.

Quantifier turns around. She offers a hand. “Doc Scratch. It is always a pleasure to meet you.”

“Of course, where are my manners?” Doc Scratch says. He takes her hand and brings it up to his head in an approximation of a kiss. “The answer is obvious, of course. I was merely waiting for you to make the decision to be polite towards me.”

“As if it was a decision at all.” Quantifier says. “A lady like me and a gentleman like you are almost the definition of polite company.”

“You mask your fright and distrust well.”

Wealthy Quantifier closes her purse. “Where are your manners?”

“I apologize.” Doc Scratch puts one hand behind his back and begins cleaning out his fingernails. “I was watching with great interest as your hired detective did his work, even though I knew the outcome of his actions. It seems that I will have to see to it that my employees’ performance improves. It’s disgraceful for an organization of our renown to act as ineffectually and unprofessionally as your detective showed.”

“I disagree.” Quantifier says. “Given whom they were fighting, they performed adequately, even competently. There is always room for improvement, of course.”

“I will take the necessary measures. It will go without saying that they will be painful.” Doc Scratch puts both hands behind his back. “I do not understand why you think manipulating me will work.”

“Manipulation?” Quantifier reels back at the accusation. “I am offended you think I would do such a thing to you.”

“I do not understand why you think lying to me will work as well.” He says. “That is, of course, a lie. I do understand. I would wonder why you try as well if I didn’t know the answer to that as well.”

Wealthy Quantifier grasps her purse strap with both hands. “Why are you here?”

“I have come to stop you. Do not mistake my involvement at this particular moment as an indication that I am rectifying my employees’ mistakes, as it might seem to someone with limited perspective like you. I knew my involvement would always be at this moment.” He says. He snaps his fingers and the Sapphire of Alternia is in his hands. “I cannot let an item with paltry power like this remain in existence to threaten my employer as slightly as it will. It was an entertaining story, but it’s a shame that I will end it on such a hopeless note.” Doc Scratch curls his hand into a fist and crushes the Sapphire of Alternia.

Crushed gemstones fall out of his hand. “Hmph.” Wealthy Quantifier huffs. “That was unexpected.”

Doc Scratch opens his hand. The crushed remains of the necklace fall onto the floor, dusting up Doc Scratch’s shoes. “A second fake. Or did you provide the real one to your detective to dest- Ah, I see now. Of course not.”

“Is there something wrong, Doctor?” Quantifier asks.

“I rarely have the opportunity to admit I was wrong. Even when I do I still only do it begrudgingly.” Doc Scratch says. “I thought you were merely a Prospitian drone who followed her visions in the clouds without question, a dolt with no ingenuity to speak of, incapable of any cunning. It appears that was a misconception.”

“Please, Doc Scratch.” She says. “My husband would be jealous if he knew of your flattery.”

Doc Scratch looks to the floor. He lifts his head. “How are you hiding this from me?” Doc Scratch asks. “This is impossible. It’s an embarrassment to be proven wrong, and I made certain to prepare myself in case it should happen a second time, even as I looked through all of time and space and never saw it. I am wrong and I would know why.”

“You know so much yet so little.” She says.

“The arrogance of limited minds.” Doc Scratch says. “Unbearable.”

“Centuries ago I met twelve children. Before I met them I understood that the purpose of my existence was to be dedicated entirely to them. This was true, in a sense, but as I met them and became more involved with them I realized quickly that the relationship would not be as one-sided as I had previously assumed. I learned many things from them, more than they learned from me. Even a few of their most clever tricks.” Quantifier says with a large grin.

“I engineered their victory. I find the notion that there is something I do not know about them laughable.” Doc Scratch says in a slightly raised voice.

“What was that you were saying, about you being proven wrong twice, now? What happened the first time?” Quantifier says with a wry smile. “You treat them as pawns, pieces to be moved around, when they are so much more than that. You say you were wrong to underestimate me. Such fallacy. You were wrong to underestimate them.”

Doc Scratch’s torso heaves as if he was taking a breath. “I don’t need to remind you that my employer is already here. You are undertaking a pointless, futile struggle.”

Quantifier smiles. “I am a Prospitian. I see pointless, futile struggles as a call to action. It is in my nature to see hope where there is none and turn certain failure into unabashed success.” She says. “Your words will not deter me.”

Doc Scratch stands motionless. “I was not issuing a challenge, Wealthy Quantifier, I was stating fact.” He says. “But I can see that you will not be deterred. If you enjoy futile struggles I will happily provide you one.”

Doc Scratch disappears in a flash of green lightning. The fluorescent light that was charged with his energy slowly dims down to near darkness. Wealthy Quantifier smiles.

==>

It is not every day that you force a literal know-it-all to eat his own words. Perhaps it is petty of you, but you cannot but help feel a small amount of satisfaction from his reactions.

You feel safe that the Sapphire of Alternia is hidden where it cannot be found, especially by him.

There is still much work to do.