It was a typical Sunday, and Emerson Cod was sitting in his usual place in his office above the dim sum restaurant. He looked around the room, taking in the signs of what had become a very lucrative business. Ever since joining forces with the Ned the Pie Maker, who had the ability to bring the dead back to life with a touch, fortunes had abounded for the Cod Detective Agency. It had been six years, seven months, three days, five hours, twenty-seven minutes, and eight seconds since Emerson Cod discovered the Pie Maker's secret and their business arrangement began, and in that time Emerson had socked away a substantial amount of reward money, lovingly stored in socks he knit himself.
The business arrangement had not come without certain drawbacks. One such drawback was Ned's girlfriend. The girl called Chuck was Ned's childhood sweetheart, the first human Ned brought back to life who stayed that way, and because of her cheerful perky nature, she was the biggest annoyance in Emerson's life.
"Dead Girl's too damn perky," Emerson had growled on many occasions, and it was true. Chuck, known to the public as Lonely Tourist Charlotte Charles, and also known to the public for being dead, was filled with cheerful gregariousness, the lust for life, and an unrelenting optimism that frequently drove Emerson to his knitting needles in an office supply cosy creating frenzy. Never one to pass up an opportunity to enhance his stash of cash, Emerson had begun to sell his creations under the name "Lil' Nosey's Office Cosies". The additional cash, although leading to an enhanced yarn stash, did little to endear Chuck to the private investigator, whose fingers were developing knitter's callouses.
At the end of the day, Emerson was mostly content. But mostly content is not completely content, and it was in this state of incomplete contentment that Emerson was wallowing when the door to his office opened and a whirlwind of entirely petite proportions upended his quiet Sunday.
"Emerson Cod, where have you been?" Olive Snook stood in the doorway, hands on her hips, still wearing the latest uniform from her restaurant The Intrepid Cow, a modern-day take on the traditional milkmaid costume. The uniform was intended to highlight The Intrepid Cow's main attribute - that they used only the freshest dairy. The fact that the low-cut top with the ruffled edging highlighted Olive's more personal non-culinary attributes as well was a carefully calculated marketing strategy that had worked to great effect. "I haven't seen you at The Intrepid Cow in ages."
Emerson narrowed his eyes. "You haven't seen me there since that abomination appeared on the menu."
The Intrepid Cow specialized in comfort food of the macaroni-and-cheese variety. The initial offerings were limited to cheddar and elbow macaroni, but Olive's friendship with Vivian and Lily Charles had introduced her to a world known only to the true turomaniac. They opened the door to their cheesebox, and in doing so, opened Olive's eyes. The Intrepid Cow now boasted a menu of twenty-three different dishes, from a Gouda-and-goat-cheese that had people standing in line, to a simple yet delicious cheddar and jack cheese designed to appeal to traditionalists. Lately, Olive had begun to branch out to more alternative cuisines, in an attempt to corner the burgeoning health-food foodie enthusiast market. This had lead to some interesting choices.
Olive tilted her head. "Are you referring to the Vegan Tofu Not-Dog Mockaroni Surprise?"
"Ain't no reason for mac and cheese to be surprising," Emerson said. "Mac and cheese is comfort food. It's food that fills you up and warms you like a snuggly blanket and soft pillow. It's food that soothes you after a hard day upholding justice and dealing with the likes of Ned and his zombie girlfriend and zombie dog."
"The vegans love it," Olive said, not blinking at the mention of the zombification of Chuck and Digby. After much wheedling and pointed glares and a few dirty price-cutting tactics, Ned had finally let Olive in on his secret, and how he'd brought Chuck back to life. She was a little creeped out, but after a week of looking at Chuck and Digby with faintly horrified eyes, Olive regained her equilibrium.
"The vegans don't know what good food is," Emerson grunted. In truth, Emerson had no more beef with the vegans than they had on their dinner plates. He was grouchy to Olive because he was in the habit of being grouchy to Olive, and habits, like Charlotte Charles, die hard. "What do you want?"
Olive pouted. "Can't a girl come visit her friend and fellow investigator into the unknown?"
"No. And you ain't my fellow investigator."
Olive shut the door behind her. "I am too, Emerson Cod, and you know it. I've been helping you and Ned and Chuck solve mysteries for years now, even when I didn't know what was going on." She gave a mighty hop and perched on the corner of his desk. "And you love it, and you know that, too. Here." She whipped a plain envelope out of her cleavage, wincing as the sharp edges caught places that weren't used to sharp edges.
"Wouldn't pockets be easier?" Emerson asked.
Olive ignored him and handed over the envelope. "Take it. It's an invitation to the first ever Macaroni Tasting at The Intrepid Cow. And don't think I'm dropping this, mister. You've been hiding lately, and I'm going to pull you out of your shell."
"Well, there's nothing to do today," Emerson said, completely disgusted, but taking the invitation nonetheless. "People are behaving themselves, going around not killing and not stealing. It's enough to make a man turn to crochet. I mean," he amended hastily, "Where is the hate, people? A man's gotta eat, you know."
Just then, as if Emerson's words were a summons to the universe, there was a knock at the door.
"Ooooooh," Olive whispered. "A knock at the door. A case!"
Emerson pushed her off his desk, ignoring her indignant squeak, and leaned back in his desk chair. "Come in," he called, and smiled. He could smell the money now.
The door swung open to reveal a most uninspiring sight. The potential client was a mousy little man, dressed in a not-quite-shabby gray suit, with a not-quite-straggly mustache, and glasses that weren't quite too small. In fact, his entire appearance gave the impression of someone who had missed complete adequacy by a hairsbreadth and was perpetually just short of the mark.
"Cod," said Olive, struggling up from the floor and tugging at the bodice of her uniform. "Fish, not corn. It's easy to get the two confused, especially because they're both kinds of chowder. Corn chowder, cod chowder - well, I don't know if there is a cod chowder exactly, but there is fish soup, which is - "
"I'm Emerson Cod, and this is my detective agency," Emerson said smoothly. "What can I do for you?"
The man swallowed and stepped into the office, leaving the door open behind him. "My name is Terrence Tuttle. My uncle is Sebastian Tuttle, and I need you to help me find him."
Olive leaned against the desk with folded arms and a stern look. "Gimme the deets, the 411, the story, morning glory. What's the what, who's the guy, tell your tale, nightingale."
"Would you be quiet?" Emerson hissed. "Have a seat, Mr. Tuttle, and allow me to mention that I require half my fee up front." He slid the credit card machine across the desk.
Tuttle eyed it nervously. "That's fine, that's - that's not a problem. I just need help."
The facts were these. Terrence Tuttle was an unassuming man, who lived a nondescript life. He went to work and came home, fed his pet iguana, and read quiet books about other people leading their own quiet lives. Every Wednesday, his Uncle Sebastian came for dinner. They played board games, contemplated the intricacies of proper papier-mache construction, and ate overboiled pot roast. These evenings were not what most people would consider fun, but Terrence looked forward to them. The rest of Terrence's family, who were professional wild animal wranglers and who kept pet alligators, had lives that were a little more exciting than Terrence could stomach.
Recently, however, Sebastian Tuttle had seemed distant. He'd canceled the last two Wednesdays without explanation, and was short and abrupt on the phone. Terrence grew concerned, and decided to visit his uncle at home. What he found there unnerved him.
"What did you find?" Olive asked in a hushed voice.
"I'd rather not say," Terrence replied. "But I want to hire you to go find him."
"Have you called the police?" Emerson asked.
"No," Terrence said. "I don't - we're private people, my uncle and I, and unless there's a need, I don't want the police involved. I think this is the best way to go." He pulled his wallet from the inside pocket of his suit. "Here's some money, it's a down payment, or a deposit, or – I don't know the exact word, but it's yours. To hire you."
Emerson took the money, fanned it briefly, then placed it in a careful stack next to his desk blotter. "Well, Mr. Tuttle, I do believe I - "
"We," Olive said.
"I," Emerson said, with emphasis. "I can help you. I'll be in touch." He stood and ushered Terrence to the door.
Terrence turned. "Oh, I forgot to give you this." He pulled out a folded envelope. "I found it under my doormat this morning. I haven't opened it, but I'm sure it's related. I don't generally get mail under my doormat." He blinked. "Usually it's in the mailbox."
Olive plucked the envelope from Terrence's fingers. "Thank you!" she said. "I'm sure it's important. In the meantime, if you'd like a bite to eat, may I suggest The Intrepid Cow, home of homey macaroni and cheese comfort food?"
Terrence opened his mouth, looked at Olive's uniform and the view it presented, closed it, then said, "I'm lactose-intolerant."
Olive smiled brilliantly. "We have soy!"
Emerson hip-checked Olive out of the doorway. "Goodbye, Mr. Tuttle, come back in a couple of days." He shut the door behind Terrence and turned to Olive with an exasperated glare. "Listen here - "
"It's a mystery," Olive whispered, her eyes wide and sparkling.
"Ain't nothing a mystery with you," Emerson grunted, staring pointedly at her outfit.
"I could help you with it?" Olive said hopefully. "Be your Itty Bitty again?" She smiled widely.
Externally, Emerson was unimpressed. Internally, he was pleased. He took the envelope and examined it. "No return address. Local postmark." He slid his finger under the flap and ripped it open.
"No!" Olive gasped. "You have to steam it open!"
"Do what?" Emerson asked, incredulous.
"You don't want to ruin potential evidence!" Olive leaned in. "You never know what might be important later."
What Emerson didn't know was that Olive hadn't torn open an envelope in years, ever since the tragic incident when, in her quest to have her collection of jockey memorabilia registered by the National Society of Jockey Enthusiasts, she accidentally shredded the original and irreplaceable Authentic Certificate of Authenticity for her prize ceramic bust of Twofeetshort, the horse that almost made it all the way.
"Read it, read it, read it," Olive begged.
Emerson opened the envelope. Inside was a plain white index card, blank except for the following inscription: "Follow the Clues, Find the Reward"
"Reward?" Emerson felt a little spark of happiness deep inside. "Rewards are good. Rewards keep me happy."
Olive smiled. "And best of all, no death!" She reconsidered. "We hope."
"No death means no dead bodies," Emerson said. "And no dead means no Ned." He couldn't quite contain a happy little chuckle.
"I thought you liked Ned," Olive said.
"I got no problem with Ned and his magic touch," Emerson said. "But no Ned means no Dead Girl, and no Dead Girl means none of her chatter." He shot a quick glare at Olive. "One chatterbox per case is enough."
Olive linked her arm through his. "Come on, partner. Let's go rustle up a reward."
Emerson tucked the envelope away, and looked down at Olive's shining face. "You go home and change first. Outfit like that, people may get confused about what you're selling."
"That is a big house," Olive said in awe. Pigby grunted. Olive had insisted on bringing him, claiming his skills at truffle finding would translate well into lost-old-person finding. Emerson had doubts.
"That is a big mess." Emerson kicked aside an empty three-ring binder, a shoe, and a bird's nest, and peered at the house from just inside the fence that bordered the front lawn. "You sure this is the right place?"
Olive pointed to the house number, which was barely visible under an overgrown spider fern that was decorated with a pinwheel and a Nutcracker. "It's the address Terrence Tuttle gave us."
Emerson picked his way up the front walk, which necessitated stepping over a kewpie doll, an overly large chess piece, a plaque stating "Best Game of 1987", and a hot dog. The front door was locked. "Naturally," he sighed, and peered through the window before noticing that there was a note tucked against the windowpane.
"Hmmm," Olive said, startling Emerson. "There appears to be a note jammed in the windowpane." She squirmed under Emerson's arm and snatched the note, just as Emerson reached for it. "It's a list."
"A list of what?"
"Junk," Olive said, her brow furrowed in confusion. "It says 'Spoon, Elephant, Clock, Urn, Ring, Igloo, Table, Yo-yo, Key'." She frowned up at Emerson. "What?"
"What the hell does that mean?" Emerson said.
"I don't know," Olive said. "But there's an urn over there in the bushes."
The facts were these. Sebastian Tuttle was a game designer. His specialty was Hidden Object Games. He would spend hours hunched over his desk, carefully cutting out small pictures of coffee cups, antique cars, dolls, tubas, oranges, and watermelons and gluing them to large pictures of parks, living rooms, and city squares. The player would be given a list of items to find in the final picture, occasionally with a goal of solving a riddle or completing a puzzle. But as was often the case with certain personality types, Sebastian became obsessed with his profession. He began to crave clutter, and the challenge of searching for the various objects in his pictures. His obsession began to creep into his daily life. Clear lawns and empty rooms were not soothing, but expanses of wasted space that could be filled with a visual smorsgasbord, items precisely arranged to tease the eye.
Emerson's eye was not teased as much as tortured. His was an orderly mind, and an orderly life (for the most part) and the visual cacophony disturbed him. "Don't know why people can't just have normal offices and normal jobs," he grumbled. "All this bleed-over from work to life is just wrong."
Olive stared at him. "You practically live in your office," she said blankly. "You're dating someone who was a murder suspect in one of your cases. You eat dinner at the Chinese restaurant almost every day, and that was a case, too. You don't even have friends other than us." She smiled up at him. "I think we're the best friends you've ever had."
Emerson was unable to deny this, although he would never admit it. Against his will and his better judgment, his professional relationships with Ned, Olive, and even Chuck had become more than just professional. He was even contemplating knitting a sweater for Pigby. It got cold in the winter, and Emerson felt that there was something wrong with goosebumps on a pig.
"Whatever," he grunted. He leaned over and scooped up the urn, shaking it a little to knock off the dirt.
"Hey, did you hear that?" Olive said. "I think there's something inside. Open it!"
Emerson squinted at the urn. "This is what dead people are buried in after they're cremated," he said. "I ain't opening this."
"Oh Emerson, come on," Olive said. "Where's your sense of adventure?"
"My sense of adventure doesn't extend to poking through the ashes of someone's dearly departed," Emerson retorted.
Olive sighed and took the urn from him. "I doubt there are actually ashes in here," she said, opening the lid. "They usually seal the urns when there's someone inside, right? And look, nothing but this small piece of paper." She pulled out a small folded sheet of paper and opened it. "It looks like there's part of a picture on it. Oooooh, like it's part of a puzzle."
Emerson groaned. "No, no, no, no, no. Tell me we do not have to find those things in this mess of a front yard."
Olive's eyes widened in what could only be described as glee. "It's like a treasure hunt! Although this isn't really treasure, it's more like junk. But still! Oh, this will be fun." She immediately began digging around on the porch, chanting "Spoon, Elephant, Clock, Urn, Ring, Igloo, Table, Yo-yo, Key" under her breath. Emerson heaved a sigh that came from the bottoms of his feet, jammed the list in his pocket, and glared out at the cluttered front lawn. Pigby chose this moment to take a nap, which did not surprise Emerson one bit.
"Hey, I think I see a clock," Olive said. "Over there, by the topiary lion, see it?"
"This case is going to annoy me to death is what I see," Emerson said. He kicked and picked his way over to the topiary lion, giving Pigby a firm nudge with the toe of his boot on the way. Pigby grunted. "Your pig is not contributing."
"Leave Pigby alone," Olive said. "He spends all day by himself when I'm at the restaurant, and it's nice for him to get out of the apartment."
Emerson grunted and plucked the clock out from the topiary lion's jaws. He poked at the clockface, and it popped open, revealing another scrap of paper. "Oh look," he said. "Another puzzle piece. Surprise, surprise."
"So, we find all the things on the list," Olive said, retrieving the yo-yo from the pocket of a baseball glove. "Each thing we find has a puzzle piece in it. We put the pieces together and get - what?"
"You think I know?" Emerson asked. He glared at a small plastic igloo in the middle of the yard. "You think I have information you don't?"
Olive prised the puzzle piece from between the two halves of the yo-yo. "I was just thinking out loud." She pocketed the puzzle piece and dropped the yo-yo. "All this bending over and searching is giving me a kink in my back." She stretched, sighing a little, then dropped her hands to her sides and surveyed the yard. "Honestly, I'm surprised Mr. Tuttle's neighbors haven't complained about the mess."
"Yeah, I know," Emerson said. "Most people wouldn't take kindly to living next door to this mess."
"Oh, look!" Olive said happily. "Pigby found something!"
Pigby had indeed found something - a small toy elephant lying on the grass next to the mailbox, with a puzzle piece tucked inside its trunk. Pigby was not searching for the elephant, but instead for something to eat. Although it was pure coincidence that he chose to root next to the toy, Olive still beamed with pride.
"What's left?" Emerson asked.
"Hmmm," Olive said. "We have the clock, the yo-yo, the elephant (way to go Pigby), the urn. . . oh! We need the spoon, table, and ring."
"You look for the ring," Emerson said.
"Oh, hey, maybe it's a diamond ring!" Olive said in excitement.
It was not a diamond ring. The ring was instead a brass hoop hanging from the flagpole on the porch, its puzzle piece taped along the inside. Olive swallowed her disappointment. Emerson chose not to swallow his amusement, as he watched her climb the porch railing and balance along the edge. "You could help me!" she called, clinging to the railing post and straining for the ring.
"I could, but I ain't," he replied. "I gotta find a spoon. Get your pig to help."
They found the table when Olive realized she'd been sitting on it for twenty minutes, taking a break. Emerson gave her a look of complete disgust, upended it (forcing her to slide off in the process), and retrieved the final another puzzle piece. He righted the table, and they spread the puzzle on top. "Oh, I loved picture puzzles when I was a kid," Olive said. "I had a million of them - horses, ponies, horses and ponies. . ." She sighed happily. "I don't suppose you played with puzzles. Did you?"
"Sure I did," Emerson replied, which wasn't entirely untrue. Emerson did play with puzzles, but they were not so much toy puzzles as they were the mysteries that he and his mother were hired to solve. The basic principles were the same, however. Look at your clues, put them in order, solve the crime.
"This don't solve anything," Emerson said. He poked at the assembled picture. "A flowerpot? All that for a sad hand-drawn cartoon of a flowerpot?"
Olive sat back, disappointed. "It does seem anti-climatic, doesn't it?" She cocked her head. "Although it kind of looks like the flowerpot over there by the doghouse. You know, the one under the miniature hot air balloon?"
"Right," Emerson said. He crossed to the doghouse and kicked the flowerpot over. "Nothing."
"Look in the flowerpot," Olive suggested.
Emerson stuck his hand inside and felt around. "Yep. There's something taped to the bottom."
Olive hurried over as Emerson pulled the key out of the flowerpot and picked off the remnants of tape. "It looks like a house key," she said. "But that's the last item on the list, so. . ."
"So, we go inside," Emerson said. "There better be an old man sitting there laughin', or I'm gonna get annoyed."
There was no laughing man inside, or any man at all. Emerson was, as predicted, annoyed.
"Just more of the same mess," Olive said. "And look, another envelope."
Indeed, the inside of the house seemed to be a continuation of the clutter theme. Olive, Emerson, and Pigby stood in a small foyer, closed doors to either side of them, and surrounded by junk, junk, and more junk. The envelope to which Olive referred was propped against a life-sized clown doll that lay slumped in a corner. Emerson opened it ("steam!" Olive hissed, and then threw her hands up in exasperation), and read the contents aloud.
"Rattle, Eraser, Wings, Argyle, Ribbon," He paused and sighed. "Dickens."
"Watch your language," Olive said.
"Watch my - Dickens like Charles Dickens," Emerson said.
"Oh. Well, at least it's a short list?" Olive offered. "Six things shouldn't be too hard to find."
"What kind of person does this?" Emerson asked the universe. "Who wakes up in the morning and says 'gee, I think I'm going to unload a truck full of junk on my house and then hide things in it?'" He kicked a footstool out of the way, and watched morosely as it slid across the floor and crashed into a sidetable. Pigby grunted and wandered off to investigate a corner. "'Follow the clues, find the reward', my ass."
Olive shrugged, tipping over a wastebasket and peeking underneath. "It's a case. It's money. Besides, I think it's kind of fun. You and me, chasing perps, solving mysteries - we're like Snook and Cod, PI Team Extraordinaire! Or should it be Cod and Snook, I mean it is your business, this would just be something I did on the side."
"You see any perps here?" Emerson asked. "All I see is trash. Junk. Garbage. Refuse."
"Clutter," Olive said wisely. "Litter, rubbish, scrap, debris."
"What?" Olive said. "I read." Olive leaned down and tugged an argyle sock that was lying half-underneath a sofa cushion. She poked her hand inside and pulled out a wad of paper, flattening it to find the not-entirely-unexpected puzzle piece. "Anyway, it's the same thing. We're a team. A duo. A-"
"Do not start that up again," Emerson said. "Just look for the damn rattle, will you?" He stared blankly at the tricycle that was tipped against the wall. "Some people don't have the sense God gave chickens."
As it turned out, Pigby found the rattle, which Olive took as evidence of his superior olfactory skills and training. Emerson took it as evidence that the rattle was sticking out of the garbage can, which stunk to high heaven, and pigs just had bigger noses.
"I think the point is not so much how the rattle was found, but who found it," Olive said. "Pigby."
"Pigby lucked out," Emerson said. He'd found the ribbon scratched on the wall, but without a puzzle piece in sight. Frustrated, he hit the wall lightly with his fist, and was startled when the plaster with the ribbon graffiti fell down in one piece, revealing yet another puzzle piece.
"Maybe we should change the name to Cob, Snook, and Pigby," Olive said, digging the eraser and attached puzzle piece out of a bowl that was balanced precariously on the windowsill. "Adding a third name would make it less likely that people would call us Snob and Cook instead of Snook and Cob. Then again, I am a cook by trade, and frankly you are quite judgmental at times, so Cook and Snob would be a fairly accurate description of our - " She caught Emerson's glare and quickly reconsidered. "We can discuss that later."
"We will be discussing nothing later," Emerson said, poking through a collection of ceramic figurines tucked away in a corner. He carefully pulled out an angel, complete with wings, and removed the puzzle piece taped to the bottom. "My business, my name."
"I think that's all of them," Olive said, blowing the dust off a ratty copy of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. She fanned the pages carefully and smiled when the puzzle piece fell onto the floor. Emerson handed over the pieces he'd located, and she spread them on the floor, quickly sorting them into a picture of -
"Another picture?" Emerson said.
"A picture of a picture," Olive said. "I think that's the landscape that's hanging over there, next to the knight in shining armor."
Emerson crossed the room and contemplated the landscape. "Looks like a paint-by-numbers deal," he said. "Nothing special."
"Maybe there's something behind it?" Olive offered.
There was something behind the painting. A safe, in fact, with a fold-out keyboard and small screen. Emerson poked at a few keys at random, but nothing happened. "It needs a password."
"But how are we supposed to know what the password is?" Olive asked.
"Maybe it's around here somewhere," Emerson said. "Look for something that's out of place."
Olive stared at the chaos around her. "You're kidding."
"Right," Emerson said. He pondered the situation. "Maybe we missed something. Lemme see those lists again."
Olive rummaged in her pocket and pulled out the rather battered object lists. "I don't think we missed anything," she said. "We found it all. The spoon, the elephant, the clock, you found the urn, I found that completely deceiving not-a-diamond ring, the igloo, the table, and the yo-yo."
Emerson frowned over the other list. "Rattle, eraser, wings - " He paused. "I wonder why 'wings' and not 'angel'?"
"That's easy," Olive said. "Because R-E-A-A-R-D doesn't spell anything." She grinned. "REAARD! It sounds like a roar. REAARD!"
"Spell what?" Emerson said.
"Oh, see?" Olive stood on her tiptoes and pointed at the list. "It's like one of those word games. R-E-W-A-R-D. Reward! I noticed it while you were busy breaking the wall over there." She paused. "I wonder if they're going to expect us to pay for that?"
Emerson didn't hear her. He was staring at the list in his hand. "Son of a gun," he said. "Gimmie that other list."
Olive handed it over.
"Spoon, Elephant, Clock, Urn, Ribbon, Igloo, Table, Yo-yo," Emerson read. "S-E-C-U-R-I-T-Y. Security reward."
"Security reward?" Olive asked.
"Security reward," Emerson said blankly. "What the hell does that mean?"
"Security, as in secure as in - the safe?"
Emerson stared at her. "Security is the reward, as in the reward is in the safe, as in this is the password to the safe. Please tell me this man didn't win any awards for his puzzles, because this stinks."
"Well, type it in, type it in!"
Emerson typed the password into the safe keyboard, the safe sprung open, and confetti exploded outwards, showering Emerson and Olive (and Pigby). There was a loud click behind them, and the trio turned to witness a heretofore unseen door swing open. An elderly man stood in the doorway, grinning broadly. His hair was shockingly white, his suit was bright purple with orange pinstripes, accented with a red tie and pocket handkerchief, and his shoes were yellow. The overall effect was rather like a box of watercolors had been indiscriminately spilled on him.
"Well, looky there," Emerson said. "An old man, just what I've been looking for."
"It's like a dream come true," Olive breathed. "Well, not really. You must be Sebastian Tuttle!"
It was Sebastian Tuttle, and his story was a simple one. His obsession with his work, and the subsequent clutterfication of his home, gave him a brilliant idea. If finding hidden objects was fun on paper, then it would be even more fun off the page and in real life.
"Can you imagine it?" he said, eyes gleaming as he crossed the foyer. "An entire theme park dedicated to the thrill of looking for lost items and then finding them! I'd start small, of course - a Hidden Object Room, perhaps in a bed and breakfast somewhere. If that came off, then maybe a Hidden Object House, each room with its own theme and puzzle to solve.
"And then," he said, standing almost on top of Olive, grin wider than ever. "An entire theme park. Tuttle's Treasures, where the key to leave is the reward for finding every object and solving every puzzle. Of course, there would be hints and tips, and a way to get out if you just can't do it. but can there be anything better than indulging in a weekend of the best game ever invented?"
"So, this is all just a trial run?" Emerson asked. "And what about the reward? Tell me there's a reward in this."
"I needed to try it out, to see if it could work." Sebastian said. "I've spent the past month getting things ready, and it's been an incredible amount of work. The reward is the satisfaction and pride you have in completing the puzzle!"
"So that's why you were avoiding Terrence?" Olive asked, neatly talking over Emerson's outrage. "He's been really worried. You should be ashamed."
Sebastian Tuttle smiled. "Terrence needs to relax. He gets stuck in a rut and forgets that the rest of the world needs to change things up once in a while. I'd hoped that he would be the one to come solve this, but I suppose his neuroses got the best of him." He clapped his hands together and smiled brilliantly. "So, moving on. Tell me, what did you think of my game? I have some feedback surveys in the back, and I'd appreciate any comments you have."
Emerson and Olive chose not to complete Sebastian Tuttle's feedback forms. Emerson stomped back to the car, his aggravation barely contained, and then was forced to wait while Olive wheedled and cajoled Pigby away from the overstuffed loveseat. The drive back to the office was long and quiet, except for Pigby's snuffling in the back seat, and Emerson's grumbling in the front.
"So, my uncle was home all this time?" Terrence asked in wonder. "I thought the place had been ransacked, or a tornado, or - or something."
"Yes, and you should get out and go visit him," Olive scolded. "He's put a lot of work into his dream, and the house is the first step. He'd probably love it if you visited and helped him out."
"And I'd definitely love it if you paid the balance of your fee," Emerson said rising with a glower from behind the desk. "And the next time you lose something, don't call us. In fact, don't call us at all." He snatched the money from Terrence's hands, hustled him through the door, and turned. "Pain in my ass. . . uh-oh."
Olive was standing right in front of him, eyes wide, and face hopeful. "You said 'us'," she said.
"Didn't," Emerson said.
"Did!" Olive smiled widely and poked Emerson in the chest. "You said us, which is another word for you and me, which is another way of saying a duo or a partnership."
Emerson pushed past her and sat at his desk. "Yeah, I did." He glanced at her sideways. "You done good today."
"I did done good," Olive replied happily. "We were a team!"
Emerson slowly flipped through the stack of cash. "We got paid. You earned your cut." He peeled off half the bills and slid them across the table to Olive then leaned back, folding his hands across his chest. "Just supposin' your cow restaurant -"
"Macaroni and cheese emporium," Olive clarified.
" - COW restaurant is slow, because of you offering soy cheese and tofu hot dogs - "
"Beloved by the vegans and those who are concerned about their arteries but still want the delicious taste of milk and processed meat -"
"Be that as it may," Emerson said loudly. "If you're slow, and I got a case, well. I may give you a call."
Olive hopped on the desk and crossed her legs. She pantomimed tipping a fedora-style hat over her eyes, and said huskily, "Itty Bitty and the Cod. Private Investigators."
"Emerson Cod Investigations," Emerson said. He smiled. "And Associates."