Murder Most Fowl

As repeatedly promised, I’ve spent the last few weeks finishing up a new short story, which is posted below.  It’s probably not the greatest thing I’ve ever written — it’s probably not even the second greatest thing, if I’m being perfectly honest.  Well, if I’m being perfectly honest, it’s unreadable garbage, which doesn’t say a whole lot about its relative value compared to my other work.  But it is part of a larger collection of Dirk Danger stories that I began writing back in college (the first of which can be found here), which was the real reason that I resolved to write more this year.  As I’ve mentioned before, the real reason I’m even writing this blog is because I used to write terrible stories, and I missed doing it, so bear with me here as I pop out a new terrible story every few months.  I promise that next week I’ll get back to posting my stupid opinions on stupid things, which I’ll support stupidly.

In the meantime, please enjoy this story, which takes place during a lull in the investigation of the disappearance of flooring magnate Ed Heartwood; Dirk Danger has recently brought his childhood friend Sam O’Leary on board to aid in the investigation, and the pair are discovering that money’s as tight as the leads are scarce.  I don’t want to give too much away (God forbid, amiright), so without further ado, here’s the continuing story of …

Dirk Danger

in

Murder Most Fowl

At 11 on Thursday morning, Sam O’Leary sat in the altogether-too-spacious office adjoining Dirk’s, leaning forward in his leather chair with his forehead propped against his palms, his elbows on his mahogany desk, as he had been all week.  Through the frosted glass, he could see his boss’s outline, reclining in his own leather chair, and could envision his coat and hat sitting on the mahogany hat rack, as they had all week, and the half-smoked cigar sitting cold in the ashtray, as it had all week.  And the frosted glass door leading to their offices, bearing Dirk’s name in capital letters sitting unshadowed, as it had all week.

All-in-all, he reflected, it had not been an exciting week.

Nominally, the week had been spent on the Heartwood case, but they had run out of leads when the warehouse excursion turned out to be a dead end.  After that, Dirk had called up Detective McNally for further leads in the case, but the cops were busily looking into a string of recent robberies they were tying to an unknown perp (or perps) they were calling, somewhat over-dramatically, the “Cat Burglar,” due to the acrobatic nature of the crimes and the telltale image of Felix the Cat found at the various crime scenes.  Instead of making progress on the case, for the past three days the pair of private investigators been sitting in their offices, reading the paper and searching in vain for stories leading to the disappearance of the flooring magnate.  Each day O’Leary finished reading the paper by ten and would spend the rest of the day in the office thinking about whether they could charge their time to the case.  On the one hand, he was thinking about the case — or at least whether he could charge their time to it — but on the other hand it was a bit meta to charge Mrs. Heartwood for sitting in the office working out whether he could charge Mrs. Heartwood.  Too meta.  Granted, it was all moot anyway, since they weren’t going to solve the case, so they couldn’t charge her anything — the Dirk Danger guarantee stipulated that their services were free until the case was solved, but then Dirk had never failed to solve a case… yet.

Normally they’d have a few cases going that they could fall back on when one went cold, but the fee Dirk had extracted from Mrs. Heartwood when she’d come back that Monday, not to mention the absurd hourly rate they’d managed to negotiate, had been large enough — if solved — that he had decided to tie up his other cases as quickly as he could and even turned down a few new ones to clear time to devote to the disappearance of the flooring magnate.  Now it had been over a month since Ed Heartwood had last been seen, and word had gotten out that Dirk Danger wasn’t taking cases — or worse, that he was taking cases, but he couldn’t solve them.  What had seemed like a brilliant plan to clear their calendar, and therefore their heads, had backfired, and now O’Leary, in charge of the books, was staring down the rent on the office, his salary, and essentially no revenue.  They couldn’t even charge for incidentals related to the case (a.k.a., “lunch”), since they weren’t really working on it — it’d be like charging the Heartwood case for Dirk’s poor business acumen.  It wasn’t just the business, it was personal; O’Leary had just bought a place and was staring down a mortgage, and as far as he could tell Dirk was in the same boat — he was pretty sure he was getting paid in Dirk’s personal winnings from fluffy dog competitions.

Looking at the books, they were running out of cash, and fast.  O’Leary was thinking, for the third time that morning, about how they’d just spent the fee from the last case they’d wrapped up as part of their case close-out extravaganza — a hundred bucks from some poor kid trying to find out who ran over his bike, 3 weeks ago (spoiler alert: it was the mom) — to pay the stencil guy to stencil Sam’s name in capital letters onto the frosted glass window of the mahogany side door that led to his office (Why does everything have to be mahogany? It’s, like, the most expensive wood!) as the shadow beyond the door of his window, bearing his name in freshly-stenciled capital letters, stirred.

On the other side of the door, Dirk Danger had seen a shadow darkening his own window.  He pulled his feet off of his desk as the shadow grew, then knocked.

“One moment!” Dirk said in the slightly-too-loud, emotionless voice one reserves for speaking to people behind doors when it’s not clear how muffled the transmission will be.  He opened a drawer and pulled their most recent case file, then spread the contents across his empty desk — best to look busy.  He started to gather them back up from his desk before adding, “It’s unlocked, come in.”

The door opened, revealing a short, kindly-looking elderly woman with soft features and gray hair rolled into a loose bun on the top of her head.  She was wearing a white sweater and a high-wasted purple skirt that went down to the floor, with a locket about her neck and eyeglasses set low on her nose over which she peered with caring blue eyes.

“Excuse me,” she said in a soft, aged voice tinged with grandmotherly warmheartedness, “I’m looking for a Mr. Danger?”

Dirk was still busily gathering the files as he made his reply.  “What can I do for you, ma’am?  As you can see, I’m quite busy.”  He had brought the files into a big pile and was straightening them out on the desk when he realized which file he’d dumped out; the grisly pictures from the Voteri murder case were on top.  The old woman’s expression turned to one of kindly shock and he quickly put the files back into their folder.

“I can see that!  I didn’t mean to intrude.  It looks like you have far better things to do than to be caught up in the whims of a little old lady like myself,” she said, eyes twinkling.  “Have a wonderful day,” she finished, and with that she turned to let herself out.

Behind the side door, O’Leary experienced a wave of panic (oh God how could he turn her down) as he heard the conversation behind the door, but Dirk calmly reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone as she walked through the doorway.  He pressed 2 on speed dial and muted his cell phone as the office landline rang.

“One moment, ma’am, before you go — I’m expecting a break in this case and this might be it.”  She turned around as he answered the phone.  “Yes?”  Pause.  “Yes?”  Pause.  “Sam — that’s excellent!  It was the Cat Burglar all along? Great work!  Now that that’s wrapped up, we should have a bit more time for new cases.  Keep it up,” and he hung up the phone.  On his cell phone, the call ended.

To the elderly woman about to leave his office he said, “That was my assistant Sam O’Leary, he’s been working this case for me,” he waved the file fodler in his hand before dropping it back into his desk drawer.  “It looks like we’ve just about wrapped it up. I think we may have time to take on additional work.  Now, if you’ll just have a seat we can discuss what you came here to talk about.”

“Oh, how wonderful!” said the woman as she came back into the office, closing the door behind her.  “If you don’t mind, I’d like to keep this conversation behind closed doors — I don’t know who’s around, but this is quite sensitive business!”  Her eyes sparkled again as she said this, and she said it in the way that little old ladies say everything: slowly, endearingly, and with a bit of mischief, pausing after each word at the end of the sentence: quite. Sensitive. Business!

Dirk nodded and motioned to the seat across from his desk, as if to say, “Yes, yes, that’s fine, take a seat,” but what he actually said was “Just give me one moment to notify the proper authorities about that last case and we’ll be ready to go.”  He picked his cell phone up from the chair before sitting down and quickly shot off a text to Sam: Stay in office.  Make no sound.  If any little old ladies ask, you were wrapping up a very important case today — Cat Burglar.

“Now, that’s done,” he said, as he put his cell phone back into his pants pocket.  “I’m Dirk Danger.  Please, ma’am, what can we do for you?”

 —

An hour later, the pair of P.I.s were eating fish tacos at a picnic table next to the El Fishy Tacos food truck.  In between bites of hot, salty fried cod and cabbage, they were discussing the case the little old lady had presented.

“So, what you’re telling me is, this little old lady comes in, claiming she has a case that is, and I’m quoting, ‘quite serious.’  She then proceeds to tell you the cops won’t hear her case, and again I’m quoting, ‘probably because it is too dangerous to investigate,’ and that she’s willing to pay good money to anyone who will?  And this case, this ‘quite serious’ case that is ‘too dangerous to investigate’ is … her bird is missing?” O’Leary inquired skeptically.

 “First, she’s not some ‘little old lady,’ her name is Mrs. Webster and she seemed very nice.  Second, it’s not just a bird, it’s a canary.”  O’Leary was still pretty new to the job, and it was important for him to learn how to act professionally — including how to talk about clients.  It wasn’t the most important aspect of the job, but appearances mattered, even if you thought no one was watching.  “Also, she was quite sincere.  We’re going to help her out on this.”  He intended that to sound final.

O’Leary pressed the issue anyway.  “Fine, it’s not like we’re doing anything else, but what’s this gonna do for us in the long run?  This is no better than the kid with the bike — we’ll get another hundred bucks, and for what?  To find out that her bird flew out a window?  Then we’re back where we started.  We’ll barely cover these tacos and the gas we’ll use to drive out there.  We should be using this time to look for other work — whether that’s better cases or a new job entirely.”

“No, no, no, Sam, you’re missing the point.  ‘Canary,’ not ‘bird.’  And she was quite sincere.  Whether or not the cops tossed the case because it sounds ridiculous — which they did, I called Tyler, he apparently laughed her out of the station — she honestly believes something fishy-” Dirk looked at his taco and raised an eyebrow- “is going on.  And she is willing to pay good money — money you of all people know we need — to take the case.  Besides, you know that we can’t look for other cases; we might as well hang around our necks saying ‘Stumped by the Heartwood Case.’  Lady Heartwood will take her case, and her money, elsewhere.”

“Maybe she should.  We’re obviously getting nowhere on it,” O’Leary rebutted.

“She shouldn’t, and we can’t let her think she should.  We’re getting nowhere now, but I’ve never lost a case and I’m not going to fail on this one.  We’ll get there eventually.”

Sam rolled his eyes at this display of optimism.  “Yeah, but when? And what do we do in the meantime?”

As usual, Dirk seized the teaching moment.  “Exactly!  What we do in the meantime is take this case.  It was a misstep to clear our caseload; things have a way of tying together in ways you don’t expect, and staying busy stops you from getting caught thinking in a certain way for too long.  But if word gets out we’re taking cases again — not looking for them, just taking them — then we’ll start to see some more clients rolling in, and we can work on getting a break in the Heartwood case as we have time.  We won’t take a full caseload, but, hell, even this one case is enough to cover our bills through the end of the month.”

O’Leary was about to take another bite of his last fish taco, but at this he set it back down on his plate. “Wait, how much, exactly, is this little old — er, Mrs. Webster — how much is she paying us to find this … canary?”  Their bills for the month were considerable; after all, they had had to take out a loan for all the extra mahogany in O’Leary’s office.

“She’s agreed to pay five thousand for conclusive proof of how the canary got out, and double if we can locate it.  Regardless of our ultimate opinion as to the bird’s whereabouts, she’s agreed to incidentals for the duration of the case.”

Sam’s eyes lit up as he scarfed down the rest of his taco.  “This is gonna be the easiest money we’ve made,” he opined, his mouth full. He swallowed and finished, “We go in, point to an open window, and say ‘That’s how your bird escaped.’  We walk out with a brick of cash.  Worst case, she has a cat, and we have to figure out if the bird escaped or got eaten — but if it got eaten it’ll be a helluva lot easier to track down!  I’m gonna go grab a soda on this rich old lady’s dime.”

Dirk held up his hand to slow his partner down.  “Again, ‘canary,’ not ‘bird.’  And not exactly.  She confessed that what she really wants is proof that the canary was taken, rather than escaped.  I told her we’d arrive at an opinion based on the facts presented and the scene of the event, but we wouldn’t allow our judgment to be clouded by perverse incentives.”

At this fresh demonstration of professional integrity, Sam rolled his eyes, but Dirk continued.  “But what I really want to know is, why is the canary so important?  Who’s willing to pay thousands of dollars to prove that someone stole a canary — and for that matter, who steals a canary?  There has to be more to this than meets the eye, don’t you think?”  Dirk raised one eyebrow knowingly at his partner and finished his last taco.  “Maybe if we find it it’ll shed some light on the situation.”

“I don’t care, man, I’m just thinking about that cash.”  Ten large would go a long way.  “Maybe you do know what you’re doing, taking this case.”

“Of course I do. I was born for this.”  Dirk looked at his watch and wiped the last crumbs of fried breading from the corners of his mouth with a napkin.  “Now let’s go — I told her we’d be meet her at her apartment in half an hour to check out the scene.”

 —

Half an hour later, they pulled up to the address that Dirk had written on a slip of paper placed on the dashboard and parked out front next to a sign, which read “Palm Woods Apartments,” the letters in white raised off of a brown background and surrounded by two crudely-drawn cartoon palm trees.  The building didn’t look particularly nice from the outside, but was typical of many apartment complexes or condos in suburban Miami, with a central area dominated by a swimming pool, surrounded on three sides by three-story buildings arranged in a U, each with green-painted doors that opened to a concrete walkway with railings overlooking the pool area.  The roofs was covered in green, wavy terra-cotta tiles.  It wasn’t decrepit, nor did it seem particularly low-rent, but not even the most generous Brit would describe it as “posh.”  To its credit, the outside of the U had a number of shade trees ringing the property, and although Dirk knew nothing of civil codes, in places they seemed like they might be a bit too close to the building.  All-in-all, it looked like a nicer version of a Motel 6.

“I don’t see how anyone who lives here has ten thousand bucks to spare,” O’Leary offered, as he closed the door to Dirk’s brown 1986 Ford LTD Crown Vic.

Dirk shrugged and set off through the main gate, heading around the pool area.  “We’re looking for unit 2315 — looks like that one,” he said, pointing to the third floor of  the center building, which made the bottom crossbar on the U surrounding the pool.  “I know you think this whole thing is ridiculous, but let’s try to keep an open mind on this one, OK?”

They made their way up the concrete stairs to the third floor.  “I make no promises.”

“Yeah, and I can’t promise to pay you this month if this case doesn’t work out, so I guess we’re even,” Dirk replied as they reached the door to the unit, “2315” stuck onto the lime green door in separate stickers with black background and gold, serifed numerals.  He gave three solid knocks on the unit door.

The dim light of the peephole went dark for a second, then the door opened, revealing Mrs. Webster, who was wearing the same high-waisted skirt and white sweater she had been wearing in the office.  “Mr. Danger!  So kind of you to come here and entertain the flighty fantasies of an old lady!”

“Of course.  And this is my partner, Sam O’Leary, he’ll be helping me out here today,” Dirk said by way of introduction.

“Mr. O’Leary!  I hear you had a busy morning!  So glad to meet you!”  Her eyes sparkled with kindness over her glasses as she shook his hand.

“Yes, it was uh…” O’Leary gave an inquiring look at Dirk for a second, then continued, “the Cat Burglar all along?  It was a very important case.”  His statement lacked conviction.

“So exciting!”

The pair of detectives was still standing on the concrete walkway outside her door, wearing suits in the sweltering Miami heat.  “Oh, do come in!” she exclaimed delightedly, motioning them inside.  “But mind your shoes, please!  I do try to keep the place tidy.”

She did more than try; she succeeded.  Her apartment was small and sparsely furnished.  To the right as they walked in was a pink throw rug in front of a small gray sofa, more of a love seat, really, which was pushed back against the wall in the main room.  To the right of the sofa was a single end table, more a pedestal, upon which was perched a round brass birdcage, the kind with thin vertical bars that meet at the top, like a whisk turned upside down, with a closed door on the side and a small wooden perch hanging from the top like a trapeze in the center of the cage.  To the left was the kitchen, a simple U-shaped countertop with a sink against the left wall and a stove against the exterior wall.  Opposite the kitchen sat a small, round wooden table set with placemats and surrounded by 4 high-backed chairs; in the center of the table sat a half-eaten blueberry pie covered with a glass dome.  In the wall, in between the sofa and the kitchen, sat a single window looking out into a shade tree outside the apartment, and along the right-hand wall of the apartment was a closed door, presumably leading to the bedroom, and another door opening into an immaculate bathroom, tile gleaming in the natural light from the window.  In the entire apartment, not a single thing was out of place — the rug squared perfectly with the sofa, the kitchen counter free and clear of clutter, the hardwood floor sparkling and scratch-free, practically brand new.  Even the pie tin was devoid of crumbs — the pie just stopped halfway through, a perfect cross-section of pie, as though the other half had never even been there.  In fact, the only thing that didn’t seem exactly where it should be was the canary, the birdcage sitting empty on its pedestal.

The investigators were taking this in as they removed their shoes, placing them neatly by the front door, Dirk removing his hat and setting it on the table next to the half-eaten pie, as a muffled, other-worldly cry escaped the closed door.

“Mrrrrrooowwlll!”

O’Leary looked quizzically at Dirk, who forwarded on the emotion in the form of a question.  “I’m sorry, Mrs. Webster, but what, exactly, was that?”

Her eyes sparkled above her glasses as she clasped her hands in front of her waist.  “Oh, that’s just my little Sylvie.  He hears people and doesn’t like to be alone, but I wanted to keep him from untidying the place.  After all, you told me to keep the place exactly as I found it!”

“And Sylvie is…?” O’Leary prodded, uncertain whether to expect something sinister behind the closed door as the little old lady moved to open it.

“Why, my cat, of course!” she cooed, and with that she swung the door open, revealing a rather large tomcat with tuxedo coloring, mostly black, with white stretching from just underneath its eyes all the way through its underbelly.  Its paws were white, as was the tip to its long black tail. The only color on the cat, including its black eyes, was its nose, which was a dark pink bordering on red.  The cat looked up at Sam, standing behind Mrs. Webster, and gave a long hiss: “Hhhhhhttthhhhh!”  With that, it scampered back into the room and disappeared under Mrs. Webster’s impeccably-made bed.

“Sylvie!” admonished Mrs. Webster.  “Oh, he’s a sweetie underneath it all, he’s just upset I locked him in this room,” she said, apologizing to Sam and closing the door again.

O’Leary made a move to comment, but Dirk cut him off.  “Mrs. Webster, are you indicating that the cat was stuck in your room at the time of the incident?”

“Oh, no!  Sylvie was out and about all night last night.  I usually leave the window open for him to scamper about outside; there’s a tree branch just outside the window that’s perfect for him to climb out on.  He fancies himself a hunter, but he’s too big to really hide himself and most everything gets away.”

O’Leary continued the inquiry, “So you’re saying that the window, which is now closed, was open last night?”

“Oh, certainly!  I closed it this morning so the wind wouldn’t blow away any clues.”  The investigators gave each other a questioning look — yes, look at the footprints on your immaculate hardwood floor and the trail of breadcrumbs leading back to the canary that might have blown away had you not closed the window.  “I had left the pie on the windowsill last night to cool and Sylvie had gone out, so I couldn’t close the window and lock him out all night.  No, the window was certainly open overnight, and little Twitters was in her cage when I went to bed.  Then, when I woke up, she was gone!  I contacted the police, but of course they have more important things to think about than the kidnapping of some little old lady’s bird.  At least, I hope it was a kidnapping — it could have been worse…” her eyes sparkled mischievously.  “Perhaps it was murder!  Murder most foul!”

“Isn’t that what cats do?  Murder most fowl?” quipped O’Leary, under his breath.  Dirk shot him a cutting glare.  The junior investigator surveyed the room once more, with a look of mock focus, as though he was taking it all in and compiling it in his head.  “Boss,” he said, turning to Dirk, “I have a theory I’d like to run by you.”

Mrs. Webster’s eyes gleamed.  “Oooooh!” she squealed.

“Outside,” finished O’Leary, smiling in mock kindness at the grandmotherly figure bouncing in excitement.

The pair stepped back outside the unit, leaving Dirk’s hat and their shoes inside.  O’Leary spoke in a hushed voice, so that Mrs. Webster wouldn’t hear.

“This is the worst situation we could have hoped for — both a cat and an open window.  I’d love the extra money, but what say we just tell her it flew away and that’s that?  Then at least she doesn’t have to blame that enormous cat.  Although, hell, that cat practically burped up a big yellow feather when it hissed at me.  Speaking of which, was it just me, or did that cat have a lisp?”

“Can’t say I noticed, Sam.”

Dirk Danger’s mind was elsewhere.  Admittedly, a cursory glance suggested that the bird met its end in a conventional fashion, but something else was clearly going on here.  O’Leary had said it himself before — there was no way a little old lady living in this place had ten grand to spend on a wild goose chase like this (or a wild canary chase, as the case may be), especially not if the case was so open and shut.  She knew more than she was letting on.

“The birdcage,” started Dirk.  “Check it out — the latch on the birdcage was shut.  Find out if it was like that when she discovered the bird was missing.  Actually, find out everything — I want to know why this is so important to her.  Grab my shoes when you go back in, would you?  I have a theory — you may be on to something with that open window.”

Sam rolled his eyes and opened the apartment door to Mrs. Webster hopping up and down excitedly and clapping her hands.  “What do you gentlemen think?” she demanded expectantly.

“Unfortunately, ma’am, we’re not sure yet. I have a few more questions to ask you, while my partner canvasses the surrounding environs for clues.”  He was sure he had heard a TV detective say that.  As Dirk set off outside, O’Leary pulled out a small, top-bound spiral notepad and a pen from his jacket pocket and as she sat down on her sofa.

He began his line of inquiry with the birdcage, as the boss had suggested.  The cage had indeed been found latched in the morning — in fact, Mrs. Webster hadn’t touched it since the night prior, when she had fed the canary.  When pressed for details on what had happened, she had fed the canary as she did every night at 6 o’clock.  At 8 she had baked a pie, and by 9 set it on the ledge to cool while she knitted — of course she knitted — then at 10 she had retired for the night.  She woke up late this morning, since she was usually awakened by the canary singing, but this morning it was silent.  When she investigated, it was gone.

And what had she done for the rest of the day? She had called the police (“the non-emergency number, mind you!”), who had been unhelpful.  Then she had gone to the station to see if they wouldn’t help anyway, where she had been directed by one Officer McNally to Mr. Danger.

And what about the pie?  There was no way she had eaten half the pie herself.  It turned out that after Mr. Danger had agreed to help she had come back and sequestered Sylvie so as not to contaminate the scene of the “crime,” then gone to her weekly bridge club meeting, which was why she had baked the pie in the first place.

Maybe she could tell him a little bit about the canary?  This line of questioning was similarly unfruitful (“Twitters was small and yellow, with a  little band on one of her legs, I think carrying her registration.  I would feed her twice a day and occasionally, only when the window was closed and Sylvie was in my room, I would take her out of the cage and give her a few strokes on the head.”), until…

“And how old was Twitters?”

“Hmm, now that you mention it, I haven’t the foggiest!”

“OK, then how long have you had her?”

Her brows furrowed and she looked sideways toward the bird cage from where she was sitting on the love seat.  “Oh, she’s been with me for, for a little over a month now, almost a month and a half I’d say.”

Sam couldn’t help but notice that she seemed to be offering this information reluctantly.  She didn’t seem to be lying, but her mannerisms and her sudden uncertainty in something that had happened so recently tipped him off to press the issue.

“Where did you get her?”

“Oh, a friend of mine gave her to me.”  This she seemed much more certain of.  “Can I get you anything, dear?  Perhaps some iced tea, or a slice of pie,” she offered, rising from her seat.

She was obviously trying to change the subject — another sign to keep pressing.  “No thank you, I’m fine.  Which friend, ma’am?”

“Which friend, which?  I don’t follow.  Are you certain I can’t get you anything?  You look quite parched — and your partner, wearing that coat and hat out in all this heat!  Certainly he could use some of my homemade sweet tea?  Where did he get off to?”

“He’ll be fine.  Which friend gave you Twitters?”

“Oh, well, as it were, I’d … rather not say.  As I told your partner, this is quite sensitive business!”  quite.  Sensitive.  Business!

 —

As Sam was inside getting stonewalled by the very person who had hired them for the case, Dirk Danger stood outside the complex, examining the shade tree abutting the structure that Sylvie used to get in and out of the unit.  The tree was massive — towering above the building, but planted about 30 feet away, with thick hardwood branches that wound their way like oaken tendrils, just brushing against the building’s exterior, though in many places they appeared to have been cut back.  From its size, the tree must have predated the building by several years.  It looked to have done some damage to the building, including an area on the roof above and to the left of Mrs. Webster’s window, where the tiling was a slightly darker green, belying its youth compared to the surrounding tile, which had been bleached by the Miami sun.  The trunk of the tree was marked with scars, some deep cuts accumulated over the tree’s lifetime, others the result of day-to-day activities, acute and transient, perhaps the product of a squirrel’s or Sylvie’s climbing, that would heal within the week but be replaced hundreds of times over.

The lowest branch was a good ten feet off the ground, but there was what looked like the dried remains of a dead branch extending about eight inches out of the trunk some seven feet off the ground.  If someone was strong enough to pull themselves up and light enough that they didn’t break it, it might be possible to grab onto it and use it to get themselves up to the first living branch.  It would be difficult, but certainly not impossible.  Once they were into the branches, the climbing would be easy until they got near the building, where the branches got thinner, but here again, if a person was light enough they might be able to make it pretty close to the window.  After all, Sylvie walked right out onto the branch by the window, and the cat probably weighed 30 pounds.

No, someone small enough and nimble enough could definitely make their way up that tree and into one of the windows.  Probably not a child — a child wouldn’t be strong enough to pull themselves up — but who else would want to climb a tree and steal some lady’s pet canary?  O’Leary had a point, that pretty much had cat written all over it.  But then…

Dirk shook his head, turned back and headed toward the front of the building.  Before he knew it, he was opening the door on his exasperated-looking partner, who was holding a glass of iced tea in one hand and pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration with the other.  Mrs. Webster was sitting on the couch, blue eyes sparkling as ever, looking up at him over her glasses.

“All right boss, get this,” started O’Leary, as Dirk removed his shoes so as not to damage or dirty the spic-and-span flooring.  “I found out she got the bird a little over a month ago, from a friend.  She won’t tell me who gave it to her – ” he shot an exasperated look at her; her eyes sparkled mischievously – “and she don’t know a thing about what happened last night.  I got nothin’ out of her.”

“All right.  Mrs. Webster, if you don’t mind, I’d like to examine the cage,” said Dirk, who made his way to the pedestal next to the couch.  The latching mechanism on the cage door was fairly complex, with a pin that slid into a housing, not unlike a smaller version of the kind of latch you might find on a bathroom stall door.  There was no way that the cat or the canary had managed to get it open, much less shut again.

The bottom of the cage was lined with newspapers, which certainly hadn’t been changed since the discovery of the bird’s absence.  Although, looking closely, it appeared they had been moved — whether by the bird itself or something else was hard to say — but where two newspapers overlapped, the droppings had cracked rather than gluing the papers together.  Opening the cage and reaching in, careful to avoid the nastier sections of newspaper, like the Living section, Dirk lifted the papers up to peer at the bottom of the cage, where he was met with a tiny, minimalist cartoon caricature of none other than Felix the Cat.

Dirk replaced the papers and calmly closed the cage door, re-latching it.  O’Leary gave him a quizzical look as he purposefully made his way to the love seat and sat down gently next to the grandmotherly figure.

“Mrs. Webster,” he began softly, “Sam here has been asking you some questions, and I understand that you want to protect your privacy, and we respect that.  But right now, we need you to tell us exactly why the Cat Burglar would steal your pet canary.”

Mrs. Webster put on a playful smile.  “There’s more to people than meets the eye,” she began, eyes twinkling.  “Even little old ladies.”

O’Leary looked at her, incredulous.  “Who the hell gave you that bird!?”

“Watch your language, young man!” came the grandmotherly reprimand.  But then she softened, though her eyes continued their preternatural twinkling.

“Very well, I suppose there is some further information I could give,” she said, adjusting her position on the sofa to face Dirk, sitting beside her.  “Some time ago, probably two months, the ceiling in my apartment began to leak.  At first I thought it was a burst pipe, but on one of my daily walks outside I noticed that the tree outside the apartment was growing into the roof.  Now, I don’t need to tell you boys about civil codes,” she said knowingly, though being regular human people, neither knew the last thing about civil codes, “but it is certainly most illegal to have a tree branch in such close proximity to the building!  What if it fell down in a storm?  Imagine the damage it would cause!”

O’Leary gave Dirk an impatient look — where is this going? — but Dirk offered a patient, “Indeed.  Please, continue.”

“Well, I certainly didn’t want the apartment complex to be getting into trouble, and of course that tree is so old and beautiful, not to mention how convenient it is for little Sylvie.  But at the same time I had a problem!  I had a leak in my roof, and it looked so dreadful!  I do try to keep a clean home.”  Her eyes sparkled again.

“Well, I went into the office and told them that it would be fine, just fine, if they would go ahead and cut back that one branch and deal with the damage from the leak.  They dragged their feet and told me they’d do what they could, but they weren’t sure they could be held responsible for the leak — in fact, they implied it was my fault for not reporting the proximity of the tree branch, can you imagine!  So I told them that if my plan sounded disagreeable, I would feel compelled to take my business elsewhere, but, being old and frail, moving was simply not an option for me, so I would have no choice but to press charges for their blatant violation of civil codes.”  With this revelation came again the mischievous smile.

“Well, naturally they saw the error of their ways and promised to rectify the situation immediately; the branch was cut back, and the roofing redone.  They even repaired the ceiling damage and the damage to the walls, and they repainted the whole room to make sure the repairs matched the rest of the room.  They even paid for new flooring, since my carpet had gotten soaked and musty along the wall.  Since they were paying for the repairs anyway, I had them put in a nice new hardwood floor, which is so much easier to keep up than a messy carpet — much less vacuuming!  It looks quite nice, too, don’t you think?”

“It looks great, ma’am.”  Dirk liked where this was going.

“Well, the young man who put in my new floor — well, I say ‘young,’ but he was probably in his 40s, which I suppose to you must seem quite old — the man who put in my flooring seemed a nice fellow, and told me he was so thankful for the business — after seeing my floor, you see, the apartment decided to opt for hardwood in all third floor units — he was so happy that he would even compensate me for the referral.  However, he would require just one service of me; I’d have to take care of his pet canary for awhile.  If I took care of it while he was out of town over the next month or so, he’d give me twenty thousand dollars; all I had to do was keep it while he was away, and he would pay me when the canary had been collected upon his return.  That was a little over a month ago.”

O’Leary, still standing, stared down at her incredulously.  “Ma’am, a man offered to give you twenty thousand dollars” twenty. thousand. dollars. “to take care of a canary?  And you thought this seemed completely reasonable?”

Dirk egged her on.   “It does seem like something of a red flag.  Have you heard from him recently?”

“I’ll admit it,” she began, the twinkle fading from her eye, “I needed the money.  I’m getting older, and my late husband’s pension is running out, and here’s me trying to pay for my medicine and my rent with little to no income.  I assumed the man was up to something suspicious, although I really couldn’t tell what harm I ever thought would come from holding onto a canary; I’m still unsure, although with this Cat Burglar business I believe I may now be in over my head, so perhaps it is best to get it all out on the table.”

“So, ma’am, if you need the money, how are you going to pay for our services if we can’t locate the canary?” asked O’Leary bluntly.

“Well, that’s just the thing!  I received a wire transfer this morning for the full twenty thousand dollars.  I thought it would only be appropriate that I spend some of it trying to relocate Twitters, you know, paying it forward if you will; the very least I can do is try to help out after the grief that I’ve caused!  I thought that if I could prove that losing the bird wasn’t my fault, maybe I could at least keep some of the money.  You must admit I can’t be blamed for the Cat Burglar, but still, maybe I’d best do the right thing.  If the bird truly can’t be located, I’ll give back the money, but I attempted to contact the man today to let him know there had been a mistake, and he had wired the money too soon, but I couldn’t contact him.  The number he had given me had been disconnected, and his office says they haven’t seen hide nor hair of him since he left over a month ago.”

“I wouldn’t worry about trying to find him.  Who was this man, ma’am?” asked Dirk, though he already new the answer.

“Why, the very owner of the flooring company himself — again, it was so nice of him to come out to visit the worksite of a little old lady like myself.”  Her eyes sparkled.  “He said his name was Ed, Ed Heartwood.”

Dirk’s knowing look offset O’Leary’s astonished grin.  “I told you, Sam, I was born for this.”  Just like that, they were back in the game.

The End

DIRK DANGER WILL RETURN

IN

A Keen Sense of Destiny

What can I say?  Dialogue: it’s not my strong suit.  I promise the next DD story I publish will be both shorter and better (I wrote it in college, but I’ll publish it next month sometime).  In the meantime, please enjoy my continued ramblings on unimportant stuff, including the hipster garbage, the art of conversation (according to me), and the podcast review you didn’t know you needed, and while it turns out you were right, I’ll give it to you anyway.

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