The case was solved, the suspect apprehended.
"Mister Cardigan . . . Mister Cardigan. . . ." called Beckett as he puffed, hauling his ample abdomen up the short flight of stairs, tripping only once.
He found the elderly gentleman sitting behind his antique desk, in his accustomed brandywine-colored chair. The padded leather creaked as Cardigan shifted his weight.
"Come in, come in, my dear Mister Beckett," said Cardigan, smiling ever so faintly. The heavier man's visits had become a regular occurrence over the past four months or so. One could pretty much set his watch by him. But today, he was exactly one hour and thirty-six minutes early.
"Mister Cardigan," puffed Beckett, now beaming, "you did it. I knew you would, I knew it."
Devon Cardigan silently reached out and straightened a slightly crooked envelope.
"But," Beckett continued, "how did you know? I looked all through the files like you said, but I found nothing out of the ordinary. Tell me, Sir, what did it for you? What gave him away?"
Devon smiled and said, "You see, my indispensable colleague, I found myself also rather in the dark on this case. However, just as I was about to admit defeat, I received what you may call a 'tip.'"
"A tip, Sir?" asked Beckett, still somewhat flushed at being called indispensable.
"Indeed. I sat here, in my office, perusing some journals, attempting to see the case from some other angle, to look at it differently, if you see what I mean."
Beckett was slowly nodding.
"Anyroad, I was getting nowhere and preparing to return to my home. Just then the telephone buzzed--let's see, that would have been about one-thirty. . . ."
"What? Just then, Sir?" exclaimed Beckett.
"Indeed," returned the elder, "Just then. An anonymous call. The caller, a middle-aged, white male from the sound of him, informed me concerning a certain lower-level government official."
"Mister Hawthorne--the perp!" again exclaimed Beckett.
"Indeed, the . . . perp. Apparently, he had, under an assumed name, acquired an account at the local vault. Once those holdings were added to the information contained on our own diskette, proving his guilt was a mere matter of paperwork."
"But Sir," Beckett piped up, "whoever was the tipper-- the caller, I mean?"
"That," intoned Devon Cardigan with a dignified air, "may remain forever a mystery."
Beckett was never to know, but years later, Cardigan, old, sick, and bedridden, would have a singular, fragmented glimpse of the irrelevant truth.
Amyl walked through the crowded, filthy city streets, lights both bright and dim throwing half a dozen thin shadows of her and her huge, pink fedora. She skipped, laughing, over greasy puddles of pooled water and scattered refuse. A small burp--the remnants of her earlier cheese-dog--escaped her. She giggled and covered her lower lip with one small white hand. She burped again, then twirled, her skirt billowing around her as she skipped over another tiny rivulet of the city's fetid liquid.
Gonna find Mallory she thought gently, her lips softly moving.
Mallory lived in a nearby brownstone. Amyl would arrive in minutes, but she knew her friend would not be there. Mallory was never home. Instead, the whole collection of pervs and huffers and nodders probably would be--Mal was certainly popular.
Oh well, she smiled and snorted, maybe Ghoul will be sober enough to find his Midnight Syndicate CD. Hah! I've sure got high friends in places.
She elbowed gently through the crowd. The lights of a nearby marquis slashed faded red ribbons across her face and breasts. Her paige-cut brown hair positively glowed in the amber lights of the stores and clubs. Finally, she rounded the corner into an everyday paradox of big city life. Leaving behind the dazzling and crowded strip, Amyl stepped onto a dark and utterly deserted street. She had to blink to adjust her eyes--eyes forever searching for signs of trouble. Dark brown, sensuous, and seemingly lit from within, those eyes waltzed from dumpsters, to alleys, to stairwells, to doorways. Mal's apartment was just ahead.
Besides, she was Amyl, charmed; she was forever. The fire had proven that. Months ago, when her parents' house burned down in the middle of the night, she was the one who got everyone out safely. Her savior, a malfunctioning alarm clock that she didn't even know she owned, had perished in the blaze. She had found the saving annoyance ringing its warning in her closet.
Yeah, well, your guardian angel has to go to the bathroom sometime, she thought. Watch your back, Babe.
She halted her dance-like gait before Number 1028. Entering carefully, ready to use Hai Karate on any perv-freaks, she shuffled to the left-hand door, raised her fist . . . and stopped. No music, no voices, no noise. There should have been. There always had been. A twenty-four hour a day buzz. Tonight, nothing.
She knocked in nine sharp raps, some half-forgotten showtune.
Dull, approaching thuds let her know that someone was home. Still, the silence was strange. The door creaked open, its hinges long untended, and there stood Mallory, looking sleepy and unhappy.
"Oh, hey Amy. Where ya been?" yawned Mal, the only person still to use her Christian name.
"You know--everywhere. Since the house burned. . . ." trailed Amyl, her lips screwed up from mild confusion. "Where's the mob?"
"Oh! I gotta tell you! Come on in. Hurry! And take off that ridiculous hat!"
Mal, awake and alive now, tugged lightly on Amyl's bare arm. The two hurried to the living room--surprisingly clean and orderly--and sat crosslegged on the sofa. Mal rubbed her brightening eyes and continued. Amyl teasingly placed the fedora upon Mallory's head, pulling the brim down over her eyes.
"Everybody's gone," said Mal, adjusting the huge hat. "See, there was this guy, and he told me that he had been by the apartment and that there was going to be a raid, and I should maybe make some things disappear. And people, too! I had been at Rhonda's this whole week, but the guy found me at a gas station. All the way across town. Well, I thought the guy was maybe a perv, but I cleared everyone out and cleaned up and trashed some stuff. Anyway, the cops busted in about an hour later, right in the middle of Voyager."
Amyl's jaw hung open.
"Soooo . . . the cops trashed the place--leaving meeeee to clean it up--again! But they didn't find anything. A whole hour and then some, but they found zero. And Ha! Were they pissed!"
Mallory stopped to breathe. Amyl, jaw unhinged, blinked.
"Uh, Mal," began Amyl, "who was the guy who narked on the cops?"
"Oh, him. Dunno, Ames. Never seen him before. Just some guy. He was kinda old, though--at least forty. Oh, and he had this really cool tattoo. Use-Your-Illusion-Art-Magic-Eye-Candy thingees . . . whatever you call it. At first, it just sat there on his chest, looking like some weird blue and yellow squigglies--"
"His chest?" interrupted Amyl.
"Yeah, the dude wasn't even wearing a shirt. But that tat--the longer you looked, the more you saw. I know the guy thought I was a major perv, but I couldn't help staring, y'know. No idea where he got that tat, but it was just so weird."
Amyl's eyes, bright and soft, grew into saucers, the perfect match for her gape.
"Ames, listen," confided Mal, "before the guy left, I swear a hand reached out of that tattoo. A hand--three dimensions, plain as day, reaching out like it wanted to cop a feel or somethin'!"
Flashback, warned Amyl's rational mind. Nothing but a freaking replay. She wanted to believe her friend, but c'mon, there was a place, after all. A No-Bull Zone, if you will. Mal had crossed it.
Only. . . . Only, this was Mal. Mallory. Her friend. One hundred twenty pounds of straight-shooting. And hey, maybe such a thing was possible.
Modern tech--go fig.
Mal stared, trying to read Amyl's face. Amyl met her gaze, her eyes steady. I believe, they said.
Jason Abbot entered the tiny motel room with his key. His special silver key. Closing the door, he looked around in the dimness for scratch paper. After a moment's rummaging, he located some, then he reached inside his shirt for a ballpoint.
This is for you.
Keep it near at all t
A noise startled him. A key in the door! Caught! How in all the worlds could this happen?
Amyl inserted her brass motel-issue key into the numbered door. She was going to collect her things and crash with Mal for a few days. Screw eighteen dollars a night!
Huh, she mused when the lock did not click, I know I didn't leave it unlocked again.
She opened the door cautiously, prepared to use Hai Karate on any pervs or creeps. What she saw, though, made her just stand there on the thresh and stare.
An old guy was sitting on her bed. Just sitting there with his head hung, holding something, not moving or anything.
Dead people can't actually sit, can they? her shocked brain fired at her.
Jason sat there as the dimness was invaded by a shaft of whiteness. He caressed the object in his hand once, soothingly, then he simply sagged lifelessly, defeated. Amyl's elongated silhouette was thrown at his feet. He never looked around. He had been caught.
"Who in hell are you?" Amyl screamed.
Jason only whistled through his teeth.
"What do you want? Get out, get out, GET OUT!"
He stood, a black steel bottle pinched between two fingers. Finally looking at Amyl, he tossed the bottle onto the bed, reached up and ripped open his shirt.
"I'll be damned! I'm getting the cops, Pervert!"
She almost turned to run, had every intention of doing so, but her eyes quite naturally flickered to his newly-bared chest. And there they would stay. She became fully aware that she was staring, and was most probably in great danger, but there was nothing else that she could do. She stood and stared as if hypnotized, her brain working feverishly to find a familiar pattern within the colored squiggles tattooed on his chest. Her head slowly tilted, her eyes never leaving the emerging pattern.
"Ever so sorry about this, my dear. But you see, I have something for you," spoke Jason slowly, precisely.
His voice: so warm, so sure, so smooth.
Then there it was. A hand. A real-life, perfect little hand. A human hand reaching through this guy's chest! How . . . well, how cool!
The absurdity of this thought shocked her into a gasp and a jump. She blinked, and the vision shook, wavered, then was gone. The hand vanished--just blue and yellow squiggles again. But, oh my, how close the man was; she could touch him from where she stood. He could touch her! How did she get this far into the room? Only hunger pangs of panic, slight and unconnected.
"The guy. . . ." she mumbled, still a bit dreamy. "Mal. Mal's friend from the apart . . . uh no, from the gas station. You warned her."
"Well, of course I did," Jason said. "You were in need of a place to stay. How could I allow that place to be closed up? I didn't want your best friend to go to jail."
"Why?" asked Amyl, now only slightly more alert but edging toward the door. "Who are you? Why are you in my room? How'd you get in here, anyway?"
"Ahh . . . dear, dear Amy," that voice again. "I have a great many talents. But I also have a gift for you. That bottle on the bed. Take it. Keep it near you at all times--especially tonight. Think of me as you will. But Keep That Bottle!"
"What is it?" she asked, nearer the door, talking just to keep him talking, looking at the black bottle as though it were a snake.
"Mace," replied Jason matter-of-factly. "You'll need it. Tonight. A man will attack you, but you will be ready for him. You don't have to understand, just be prepared."
"What!" Amyl was once again standing in the doorway, his spell not quite broken. "Is someone after me? Did you find out and come to warn me like you did with Mallory?"
"Something like that," he spoke, his face grave, "but why I'm here is much more complicated than that. I can't go into it right now."
"Well, you'd better tell me something, you James Bond wannabe. I know Hai Karate! Speak," she commanded, her brown eyes as hard as steel. But wasn't there a playful glint to them? Then again, hadn't there always been?
"I've told you all I can," he whispered. But she was staring absolute daggers at him. He lowered his gaze.
"Ok," he said hoarsely. "You'd better sit down."
Amyl stood where she was. Yeah! I'm nobody's fool, warned her eyes.
So he merely stood there; it seemed minutes before he spoke.
"You see," he began, "you were scheduled to die in that fire. . . ."
She skipped down the street, untroubled, less than half an hour after spraying down a psycho-perv-thug's eyes with DropDeadz MegaMace. She plucked the black metal bottle out of her skirt pocket and looked at it happily, skipping all the while. A confidence welled within her, and, although rarely troubled about who she was or why she did the things she did, she realized and accepted her newfound place in the universe, where she stood in the scheme of things.
It was all true, of course. Jason had never lied to her, and he never would. When he had confessed his total and quite forbidden love for her, she had seen his soul in his eyes, a new youthfulness in his face. He was her guardian angel. The one who came to such places as this, bearing gifts and giving information. In a million worlds both tiny and massive, it was Jason who placed anonymous calls at three in the morning, Jason who dropped diamond earrings and incriminating photos where just the right person would find them, and it was Jason who left flares and food and gunpowder in as of yet unneeded lifeboats.
He even said that HE was the guy who used to leave all those parachutes under the airplane seats, Amyl giggled in her mind.
A worker of miracles was he, a provider just before the need. Not fully of the race of Adam, he had proclaimed.
She hadn't seen him in hours, but she knew he would be around. Right now, he had business with a Hai Karate fighter. That was OK; he would be back. He had said that he would just know before she needed something or was in danger. Also, he wanted to be with her. She remembered it all very well.
"Just a character in a book? Man, you ARE a psycho-perv!"
So he had had to show her. In an instant, they had traveled within novels, stories, MOVIES! He had shown her worlds without number, wonderful, horrible, some unfinished.
"But you saved me when I was supposed to die! Didn't that screw up our story? Not that I'm not grateful you understand . . . but how did our writer feel?"
"Who cares," Jason had laughed. "No, I don't think it messed up the story. Just because you survived doesn't mean he wrote it that way--writer's are notorious liars. Anyway, always remember that the story controls the writer, not the other way around. But at least now you believe me."
"So, I'm not real?" she had asked. "Mal? My mother? None of us real?"
He had seen the terror tearing at her soul; he had anguished over that, so he had told her all the truth he knew.
"Have you ever felt fake? Like a puppet or a cardboard cutout? Have you ever--even once--decided that you were only the product of someone else's sick imagination?"
"Sometimes," she had admitted, a whine slipping into her voice. "Yes. Sometimes that's exactly how I feel." The pain in her eyes had become worse than ever.
"Well, that proves it then." Jason had said softly, the steel of hardened finality in his voice, "You are real--as real as anyone in any world. It's been my experience that only a living soul can feel so alienated, so unnecessary!"
She had believed every word. More importantly, she had seen that he not only believed it as well, but he knew it. Something solid deep within his eyes had spoken to her.
Later tonight, she would be staying with Mallory. She was already moved in. Right now, she was a thinking, breathing, vitally alive girl taking charge of the big city. But tomorrow . . . she thought, tipping down her huge, pink fedora. Tomorrow, I just might go skydiving.
After all, she had friends, even in high places.