The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds
I sat in my office, nursing a glass of hooch and idly cleaning my automatic. Outside the rain fell steadily, like it seems to do most of the time in our fair city, whatever the tourist board says. Heck, I didn't care. I'm not on the tourist board. I'm a private dick, and one of the best, although you wouldn't have known it; the office was crumbling, the rent was unpaid, and the hooch was my last.
Things are tough all over.
To cap it all the only client I'd had all week never showed up on the street corner where I'd waited for him. He said it was going to be a big job, but now I'd never know: he kept a prior appointment in the morgue.
So when the dame walked into my office I was sure my luck had changed for the better.
"What are you selling, lady?"
She gave me a look that would have induced heavy breathing in a pumpkin, and which shot my heartbeat up to three figures. She had long blonde hair and a figure that would have made Thomas Aquinas forget his vows. I forgot all mine about never taking cases from dames.
"What would you say to some of the green stuff?" she asked in a husky voice, getting straight to the point.
"Continue, sister." I didn't want her to know how bad I needed the dough, so I held my hand in front of my mouth; it doesn't help if a client sees you salivate.
She opened her purse and flipped out a photograph. Glossy eight by ten. "Do you recognize that man?"
In my business you know who people are. "Yeah."
"I know that too, sweetheart. It's old news. It was an accident."
Her gaze went so icy you could have chipped it into cubes and cooled a cocktail with it. "My brother's death was no accident."
I raised an eyebrow—you need a lot of arcane skills in my business—and said, "Your brother, eh?" Funny, she hadn't struck me as the type that had brothers.
"I'm Jill Dumpty."
"So your brother was Humpty Dumpty?"
"And he didn't fall off that wall, Mr. Horner. He was pushed."
Interesting, if true. Dumpty had his finger in most of the crooked pies in town; I could think of five guys who would have preferred to see him dead than alive without trying. Without trying too hard, anyway.
"You seen the cops about this?"
"Nah. The King's Men aren't interested in anything to do with his death. They say they did all they could do in trying to put him together again after the fall."
I leaned back in my chair.
"So what's it to you. Why do you need me?"
"I want you to find the killer, Mr. Horner. I want him brought to justice. I want him to fry like an egg. Oh—and one other little thing," she added lightly. "Before he died Humpty had a small manila envelope full of photographs he was meant to be sending me. Medical photos. I'm a trainee nurse, and I need them to pass my finals."
I inspected my nails, then looked up at her face, taking in a handful of waist and several curves on the way up. She was a looker, although her cute nose was a little on the shiny side. "I'll take the case. Seventy-five a day and two hundred bonus for results."
She smiled; my stomach twisted around once and went into orbit. "You get another two hundred if you get me those photographs. I want to be a nurse real bad." Then she dropped three fifties on my desktop.
I let a devil-may-care grin play across my rugged face. "Say, sister, how about letting me take you out for dinner? I just came into some money."
She gave an involuntary shiver of anticipation and muttered something about having a thing about midgets, so I knew I was onto a good thing. Then she gave me a lopsided smile that would have made Albert Einstein drop a decimal point. "First find my brother's killer, Mr. Horner. And my photographs. Then we can play."
She closed the door behind her. Maybe it was still raining but I didn't notice. I didn't care.
There are parts of town the tourist board doesn't mention. Parts of town where the police travel in threes if they travel at all. In my line of work you get to visit them more than is healthy. Healthy is never.
He was waiting for me outside Luigi's. I slid up behind him, my rubber-soled shoes soundless on the shiny wet sidewalk.
He jumped and spun around; I found myself gazing up into the muzzle of a .45. "Oh, Horner." He put the gun away. "Don't call me Cock. I'm Bernie Robin to you, short-stuff, and don't you forget it."
"Cock Robin is good enough for me, Cock. Who killed Humpty Dumpty?"
He was a strange-looking bird, but you can't be choosy in my profession. He was the best underworld lead I had.
"Let's see the color of your money."
I showed him a fifty.
"Hell," he muttered. "It's green. Why can't they make puce or mauve money for a change?" He took it though. "All I know is that the Fat Man had his finger in a lot of pies."
"One of those pies had four and twenty blackbirds in it."
"Do I hafta spell it out for you? I . . . ughh—" He crumpled to the sidewalk, an arrow protruding from his back. Cock Robin wasn't going to be doing any more chirping.
Sergeant O'Grady looked down at the body, then he looked down at me. "Faith and begorrah, to be sure," he said. "If it isn't Little Jack Horner himself."
"I didn't kill Cock Robin, Sarge."
"And I suppose that the call we got down at the station telling us you were going to be rubbing the late Mr. Robin out—here, tonight—was just a hoax?"
Excerpted from M Is for Magic by Neil Gaiman Copyright © 2008 by Neil Gaiman. Excerpted by permission.
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