I was curled up behind my desk that Tuesday afternoon, waiting for the phone to ring. It had been a slow week and I should've been catching up on my paperwork. Instead I was reading the paper and thinking about cracking open the bottle of whiskey in the bottom drawer. Usually I didn't drink until the sun went down, but the blinds were shut and I was good at pretending. It'd been a long week – my girl had left me again, and I was feeling a little at loose ends. Girls never stuck with me for too long, somehow. Maybe I just have a prickly personality.
At any rate, I had my hand on the drawer handle when the office door opened and a dame walked in.
She was a fox in every way that mattered, and then some. Pretty blue eyes, red fur all over except a patch of white that went down her throat into the V at the front of her dress, cute little white-dotted paws that would make anyone sit up and beg: yeah, she was a fox all right.
"You Muldoon?" she said. Her voice was low, velvet, like the fog on an autumn morning.
"Yeah, that's me," I said, taking my hand off the drawer handle and sitting up straight. "What can I do for ya?" I tipped my head towards the chair I kept for clients and she eyed it for a moment, then sat with fluid grace.
"What's your first name, detective?"
"Spike," I said. It wasn't, but everybody called me that sooner or later. If she thought it was cute she didn't say so.
"I'm Allie," she said. "And… I think someone's going to try to kill me."
She was fox enough that I didn't need a hook to hear her out. But I'd have listened to anyone after a hook like that. "Tell me about it," I said.
"I'm a dancer," she said. "And I sing a little. At the St. Moritz. Been working there a year, maybe – ever since I came out here. I'm good at it. And I mean dancin', not anything else."
I nodded. I'd met a few girls who did the other kind of dancing, and she didn't look like the type.
“This guy came by after one of my early shifts at the hotel,” she said. “He was tall and human. Dark hair. Good-looking, if you like humans.” The little sniff she gave at the end of that sentence told me she didn’t. “He said he had a job for me, that he’d cleared it with Dave. Said it wouldn’t be anything too hard and no funny business, but it might be a little strange. But he’d pay me.”
She named an amount that would feed a family of four for a month. For a single girl, I imagined it might last a good long time. “He paid me a quarter up front. I figured if Dave said it was okay, why not?”
I could think of a million reasons, but saying so probably wouldn’t get me anywhere good.
“So I said sure. He said he'd pick me up next Saturday night at seven, that was it. And then when he started to leave I thought – well." She laughed, a little huff of breath that made me want to roll around in it. "I thought – I don't even know what he wants me to do, right? I mean, dance, I guess, but haven't I got to learn some moves or something? And when I asked him, he said—" She hesitated, and I could see her tail flicking sideways, nervous-like. "He got all weird, and he said, 'All you got to do is answer one simple question. What does the fox say?'"
Yeah, 'weird' was a good word for it.
"What's that mean?" I asked.
"I don't know!" she wailed. "He was out the door almost before he'd finished saying it." Her tail bashed against the leg of the chair with a loud slap and she got an embarrassed look on her face. It made me realize she was younger than she looked, probably only just old enough to be out on her own. "Sorry. Just—"
"Yeah," I said. "I get it."
"It got worse, though," she said. "That was last week, and ever since… Well. People've been lookin' at me."
Anyone would've looked at her, given a working pair of eyes, but I got what she meant. "Who?"
"Don't know," she admitted. "Flashy types, though. Some regular humans and some Furs but not the usual crowd. They'd come by the hotel and just look and then go without even payin' for a dance. There was one guy in the street, too, I think. Stared at me and then when he saw I was lookin' he ran off."
"Hmm," I said.
"It's creepy, is what it is," she said. "Havin' people follow you and watch like that, like they want to split you open and crawl inside." The way she said it made me shiver. "I mean…" she said. "I ain't afraid. But I ain't stupid, either. I just want to know what I got myself into, that's all."
"This guy that came and talked to you, did he have a name?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah," she said. "Erik, I think he said. "Erik Larson."
"Erik Larson? I said. "Like, son of Carl Larson?"
She shrugged. It took ten whole seconds for the wiggle to travel all the way down her body to the white-speckled fur of her feet. “Could be. He said he was somebody. But they all say that.”
I paused to consider for a moment, but to tell you the truth I'd already made up my mind. "Okay, kid," I said. "I'll take the case."
He really was somebody, even I knew that much: Erik Larson and his brother Johan, two of the richest boys in Hollywood. They were the golden children of the family, sons of Carl Larson, who'd brought the family's department store business over from somewhere in Europe before the first war and was now raking it in hand over fist in the west. From what I'd heard, daddy had given them both token jobs in the family business and didn’t seem to mind when they failed to turn up. They had a mansion over on Whitley Avenue and spent most of their time partying by the pool with a revolving crew of Hollywood’s Who’s Who (and Who’s That): a few Tanis like Allie and me, real animals who mingled with the humans for reasons of our own, and a lot of Furs who just got their kicks pretending to be like us with masks and suits and all that jazz. The brothers didn’t seem to be serious Furs – they kept their own faces at least some of the time – but they clearly called Tanis friends, which was more than most humans did.
Rumor said it was a raised fist in their pop’s face, that they’d wanted to move to Iowa and be farmers or something but couldn’t because daddy would’ve cut off their trust fund. I thought that had to be wrong – sure there’d be some who would choose Iowa over Hollywood, but not two playboys known for their parties more than anything else.
Another rumor said it they were in the Lifestyle, that they liked it wild. Easy enough to find Tanis willing to indulge that, especially for a chance to be seen and get a shoe in the door at one of the picture studios. I didn’t judge that – well, not too much, anyway. A third rumor said it was some sort of cult around Tani hunting instincts, something like Psychiana, or I AM, or even that Ordo Templi Orientis lodge they had in Pasadena, seeking the revelation of the One Supreme Secret. I didn’t know which of the rumors was true – hell, maybe they all were.
I didn't have to know, really – I just had to know who did, or at least who could put me on the right track. So I gave Bernie a call.
Bernie was a pal of mine, the type that always had his ear to the ground and his nose in places the rest of us didn't care to speculate about. Maybe he knew so much because he was a mole. Or maybe it was just because he was a busybody. Either way, he knew things, and he owed me a favor or two after that disastrous job with the farmer's wife.
"Oh, yeah, I know those two," said Bernie. "Well, know of 'em, anyway. They don't exactly hang out with moles."
We were sitting at one end of the bar at the House of Fuzz where Bernie had agreed to meet me. The bar looked like it had seen better days – a ring of some unidentifiable substance on the counter was starting to draw flies and one of the overhead lights was flickering – but it always looked like that. Maybe they left it that way just for the atmosphere.
I'd bought Bernie a gin and tonic with some of what the fox had advanced me for expenses. I'd asked about his latest girlfriend, too, but we both knew what we were there for and it hadn't taken long to get down to business.
"I thought they liked Tanis," I said.
"Oh, they do," said Bernie, "but just, y'know. The glam types. Horses, swans, any kind of dog but the shaggy kind. Cats."
We shared a look. Fucking cats.
"Word is they're into some kind of crazy shit," he said. "Secret parties out in the hills and all that. Mystic rituals." He waggled his claws at this last with a kind of snide delight. "I heard there's gonna be another one like that this weekend. Gonna be a doozy.”
This weekend – I knew that had to be it. Allie'd said that Erik was picking her up Saturday night. "Yeah?” I said. “Tell me about it.”
“Ain’t nothing I can tell you, man. I don't know nothing. Them brothers, they're the only ones that know what's gonna happen. No one knows where they’re having it, what it’s gonna be like… all the pretty young things are practically murdering each other to get an invite.” He snorted. “Clawin’ each other to bits and they don’t even know what for, except the chance to get in somewhere exclusive.”
“But you know everyone, Bernie,” I said. “A well-connected guy like you, I bet you know someone who knows something, right?”
“Well—“ Bernie said, and then, “Hey, no, Spike, don’t look at me like that. I can’t tell you nothing, can't even tell you who to talk to.”
I bought him another drink and reminisced about the farmer's wife, and that neat little way she had of making use of a meat cleaver. After a while, Bernie gave in and told me.
Bernie sent me halfway across the city to an alley out back of Hollywood Boulevard. When I got there the alley was empty, but a quick shave and a haircut on the door at the back of the right shop brought the quick appearance of a sly-looking face with slicked-back fur behind the dusty pane of the window. He opened the door just a crack and stared down his whiskery little otter nose at me.
"Yeah, what?" he said.
"You Francis?" I said.
"And if I am?"
It wasn't an answer, but it was close enough. "Bernie sent me," I said. "I just wanna ask you a couple of questions."
"Bernie, eh?" he said. He opened the door the rest of the way and came out. He was carrying a scrap of one of those fabrics that looked like fur, embroidered neatly around the edges. He slung it over his shoulder and sat down on the stoop. "All right. Hit me with 'em."
"There's a party this weekend, I heard."
"Aw, no," he said. "S'more than my job's worth to tell you anything about that." He reached up with one paw to touch the edge of the cloth, compulsive-like.
"Relax," I said. "I don't need all the juicy details. I just wanna know where it's gonna be. I promise I ain't gonna crash it."
“Why d'ya want to know?" he asked.
"There's this dame—" I said, but I knew it was a mistake as soon as he rolled his beady little eyes.
"There's always a dame," he said. "You gonna give me a sob story?”
I wanted to give him a smack across the face, but that wouldn’t get me anything.
"She won't love you unless you get her in, is that it?" he said. "'Cause I've got to tell you, if she says that, she ain't never gonna love you."
I shook my head. "It's not like that," I said. "Look, I just need to know." I put my hand in my pocket, brought it out with a bill in it. "Alexander Hamilton wants to know, too."
Alexander Hamilton had to ask him twice, but I left the alley with directions to a place out in the hills, back behind the old sign. It was getting dark by then, and just cool enough with the sun gone down that I wasn't going to boil my spines off – perfect for a little sniffing around. I drove up to one of the lookout spots and parked, then hiked further up through the woods, edging around anyplace that seemed to have lights on.
By the time I got to the right part of the woods it was full dark, though I could see well enough in the moonlight. I was looking for a clearing, the otter had said – a place on the near side of the hill, past the worst of the mansions, where the trees thinned out just enough for a hundred people to gather.
I slowed down when I thought I was getting close, tried to move as silently as I could, and it was a good thing, too – I heard the footsteps a ways off and froze, pressed myself against the side of a tree and just waited.
There were two of them, humans both, one taller and one shorter, dressed in identical pinstriped vests and cat masks and making a hell of a lot of noise as they crashed through the brush. Needless to say, they passed me without noticing a thing.
"Shame we couldn't a let those two girls in," said the tall one.
"Which two?" asked the short one.
"Any two," the tall one said, and they both laughed like it was the funniest thing they'd ever heard. Abbott and Costello, don't quit your day job, I thought.
"But I meant those two from the beach, the ones with the cute little ears," continued the tall one. "The blond – I wanted to flick her tail, if you know what I mean." I decided he'd better be Abbott, and the short one Costello.
"Yeah," said Costello. "Too bad there's only room for the boss' girls." He gave a little resigned sigh. "Speaking of, who's the fox they're bringing in this time?
They were past me by then and I could easily have slipped by, but the mention of a fox made me hesitate.
"Dunno her name," said Abbott. "She's a dancer from one of those little hotel clubs, though. I caught a look at her the other day – Danny and I went by there just to see her for a second. She looks good."
They were almost out of sight, and this sounded promising. Besides, if the rest of the guard crew was like this I wouldn't have any trouble getting past at some other spot. So I started tailing them.
"You think she's gonna be the one? I mean, really the one? Or is it gonna be like that time last year when all the kid did was stutter about fucking zen for two minutes?"
Abbott snorted. "What a palooka. Didn't even sing a note."
"You know, before that I always thought it was a put on," said Costello. "I figured they must've told them something ahead of time, right? Just to put on a good show. But the one with the zen, I mean. That had to be real. The boss wouldn't've picked someone to do it like that."
"Nah," said Abbott. "I don't think they do tell 'em anything. Then they wouldn't be pure." There was a bit of a sneer in that last word, and by the way the short guy shifted his weight I could tell he'd caught it, too.
"You don't buy into all of that stuff?"
What stuff? I wondered. It sure sounded like Allie wasn't the first they'd brought along unprepared to one of these things. But what good was dragging a girl out into the middle of the woods just to watch her make an ass of herself? You could get that for free in the city any time.
"Oh, I dunno," said Abbott. "I think there's a message. There's somethin' to be told. Just seems like—"
Before he could finish the sentence someone else came crashing through the trees, and both Abbott and Costello stood to attention like a pair of hounds. I went still, too, but inside I was cursing.
"Who's there?" Costello called out.
"Volpone approaches from the south," said a muffled voice from the darkness.
It seemed like a damned funny thing to say, I thought, especially given that whoever'd said it was coming from the east, but it made Abbott and Costello relax again.
"Aw, Polly," said Abbott. "Enough with that stuff. Near made me jump out of my skin."
The darkness cleared its throat pointedly, and after a moment Abbott said, "All right, all right. The grapes are safe on the vine. Geez."
It was a human that came out of the trees then, dressed in one of those elaborate feather jump suits that always made my nose twitch something fierce. He had a beak mask, too, pulled down over his nose and mouth.
"Boss wants you," he said. The mask probably explained why he sounded like he was talking from the bottom of a pile of wet newspapers.
"What was that, Polly?" said Abbott, grinning.
The parrot guy pushed the beak mask up until it rested on the top of his head. "Boss wants you," he repeated. "I'll take over the round. And if you call me Polly one more time, I'll crack your nuts."
"Yeah, yeah," said Abbott. "Keep yer beak on. Nothin' happening out here anyway."
The parrot guy pulled his beak down and turned his back on them with a huff, then stalked off into the trees. Abbott and Costello gave each other a look and went back the way the parrot had come. I followed behind them, hoping they'd keep on talking, but I guess mentioning the boss had been enough to shut them up because neither of them said another word until we hit the clearing.
I was concentrating too hard on moving quietly to notice it until the two of them reached the edge of the tree line. I could see the sky open up above their heads, speckled with stars like a leopard's spots. On one side of the clearing someone had put up a big canvas tent – there was a light on inside, warm yellow spilling out from underneath the folds and where the flap gaped open.
"Think he's going to give us a raise?" Costello joked quietly. I hung back at the edge of the trees while they crossed the clearing.
"Naw, my luck's not that good," said Abbott.
They went into the tent and shut the flap, and after that I couldn't hear a word. The rest of the clearing seemed pretty empty, but I circled around the edge of it anyway, then made a quick dash across the last few feet until I was crouched in the dirt at the back of the tent.
This close I could hear voices, but the fabric still muffled everything too much to get any actual words. There was a gap in the canvas a few feet away, where the pieces had been laced together, and I shuffled over to it, put my ear right against it.
"Everything set for Saturday?" said one voice, not Abbott or Costello.
"Yeah, boss," said another unfamiliar voice. "Everything's good. We got lights and power. We got food and drink. We got the band."
"We got all the ceremonial stuff, too," said a third voice. "Chang helped me get it outta storage this morning. The only thing we're waiting on is the last of those new outfits, but my guy tells me we'll have 'em tomorrow, no problem."
"Good," said the first voice. I figured it had to be either Erik or Johan, if everyone was reporting to him. "Security?"
"All set, boss," said Abbott. "We've been making rounds, but hasn't been no one trying to sneak in yet. Seems like no one's blabbed the location so far."
I would've laughed if it wouldn't've given me away.
"Good, good," said the boss. "Johan's bringing the boy and I've got the fox."
My nose perked up at this, and I risked a glance through the gap into the tent. All of them were standing around a table looking at something, but I couldn't see what it was. Besides Abbott and Costello I recognized the brother, who had to be Erik if he was the one who'd talked to Allie, and then there were a couple more humans, a Fur wearing a cow suit, and a Tani cat.
Piled in a corner of the tent next to the generator were a bunch of long, white tubes and a couple of stage lights. There was a wooden chair there, too, rather crudely made, and a regular old standing lamp – these last two looked like they'd've been more at home in a junk shop, I thought, but maybe they needed it all for whatever kind of weird ceremony they were gonna have.
"What's the fox like?" asked the cow guy.
"Ah, she's a beauty," said Erik. "She might be a fox, but she sings like a sweet little canary."
The rest of them laughed obediently at that.
"She's the one, I can feel it," Erik said. "And this is the ninth ceremony. It's gonna happen."
They all made little noises of agreement with varying amounts of sincerity.
"Boys, boys," said Erik, shaking his head. "Some of you don't believe. Maybe you haven't seen a ceremony before, maybe you just haven't seen the right one. That's all right. The fox's wisdom – it isn't something you can just go out and stumble over. That's why we're doing this." His voice went breathy; I had to work hard not to shiver. "The fox, the great fox, the sly fox – she's a trickster. She hides her secrets even from herself. But if we're clever we can make her tell. And Johan and I – we're clever." He gave them a grin, slightly manic, and spread his hands out flat in front of himself.
"The music, that's our trick. She gets caught up in it, loses herself a little bit." The hands made a little swinging gesture in the air. "Then when it makes a place for her to speak, she's going to speak. She's going to sing. Maybe it won't be English, maybe it won't be something we can understand right away. Maybe it won't even be words. But when it's right, we're going to know it, deep down inside." He curled one hand into a fist and pressed it to his chest. "We're going to feel it."
It sounded like the biggest crock of shit I'd heard in a long time. But it also sounded like he really believed it, which was all I cared about. I took a step back, planning to get while the gettin' was good, but I guess I was too caught up in what I was hearing to pay attention, because my foot came down on a twig and it snapped, loud as a gunshot.
It was a damned rookie mistake, I knew that immediately. In the tent, the cat's head came up sharply, and I could see his whiskers twitch. "Boss," he said, urgently. "There's—"
Aww, crap, I thought. Then I ran.
I wasn't thinking too much about which direction, at first, but once I'd gotten beyond the tree line I realized my only real hope for not ending up as kitten kibble was to get back to the car as soon as I could. I swung left around a sycamore and made for the lookout spot, blasting past the guy in the parrot suit who just shoved his beak up and stared as I went by.
All the property lines and lit-up yards that I'd skirted around on the way up were still there, but I blew through them without stopping on the way down. I could hear the cat bounding around behind me, crashing through the brush and running up against one of the fences that I'd only just remembered to dodge. One of the backyards had a big swimming pool, and I think he must've fallen in, because right after I passed it, I heard the kind of yowl you really only get from a wet cat. Too bad I didn't dare spare a moment to laugh.
A few minutes later I reached the lookout spot, and since it was clear all the way to the car I curled up into a ball and flung myself out for a burst of extra speed. I rolled out of the woods like a bowling ball and landed right up against the tailgate. Bingo. Another quick scramble and I had the door unlocked and the key in the ignition. It started up with a healthy roar and I threw it in reverse, backing up just far enough that I could swerve onto the road. I looked in the mirror as the cat came tumbling out of the edge of the trees, skidding hard in the dust.
He lifted his head, dazed, and I gave him a wave just as I put my foot down on the gas.
My hands shook all the way back to the office. I parked the car and went inside, then locked the door behind me. Then I poured myself a stiff one. Fucking cats.
Halfway through the second drink, I picked up the phone and dialed the fox's number.
"Yeah?" she answered. Real class, that was.
"It's Muldoon," I said. "Got some answers for you."
I could hear her take a deep breath. "All right," she said. "Hit me with it."
"Come by the office when you can," I said. "I'll lay it all out. But short version? You're all right, kid. They ain't gonna murder you. They just want you to sing."