It began much like a scene straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel. Raymond Chandler wrote those famed mystery books that everyone always talks about but no one has actually ever read. He monopolized on the whole “damsel in distress.” His stories always began with a detective resting himself at his desk in a room that was all too gray with a glass of gin in one hand and a fully loaded revolver in the other. And then, in would step the beautiful red-dressed dame, with red smeared lips and a frightful sad gloom writ on her face. Our hero would take a chug of his drink, set it on the table, tuck his gun into its holster and extend a rye, yet warm welcome.
That is what it felt like when Guy Vandue, private eye, in his usual bright red sports coat, his blue moccasins and his heavily sun-kissed face, came steaming into Cool Catz Coffee Club—or C4, as it is known to everyone in Zoic. It all played out like that scene, except Guy was not a fair looking dame—he wasn’t even a fair looking man—and I was no detective. Instead of a glass of gin, I had a Styrofoam cup of coffee and instead of a revolver, my weapon of choice was a pen. I was busy writing away that story you probably read about Prince Bumper getting bumped.
I took a chug of my coffee. It burned on its way down. You always have to wait a half hour before its cools to a tolerable temperature. I set it down on the table to wait for that time.
“How’s it?” I asked Guy.
He looked over his shoulder and then back at me, worry written on his face. Sitting down, he ducked under the chair, his head just floating above the table. He was hiding.
“I’m in trouble, Chip,” he said. “That trip in here didn’t help.”
“You mean the trip here?” I asked.
“Yes, there’s this darned drain out there and I tripped clean over the thing.”
“Ah, I thought you meant your trip to get here,” I said.
“What a trip it was, too,” he said. He rubbed his knee. “I wonder if it’ll scab.” He looked up at me. “Things are rotten,” he said, looking back and forth as though he felt he was being followed.
“Well, I assumed as much,” I said. “Being followed?”
He shut up. Shock written on his face.
“Wh—who told you?” he stuttered.
“Well, I just guessed.”
“Good guess,” he said. “You’ve always been good at your guess-work, as you call it.”
“Yes, I like to think I see what others don’t.” I took another sip of my coffee, forgetting how hot it was and burning my mouth. “I wish there was a way I could translate that into a winning lottery ticket.”
“What if,” Guy said, “What if I told you you could?”
“I probably wouldn’t believe you. Now, what is with all this hiding?”
“Promise you won’t tell anyone if I told you?”
“You didn’t murder someone, did you?”
“No. It’s much worse.”
He pulled out of his coat pocket a small, golden key and set it on the table.”
“What is it?”
“It’s the key to something very important.”
“What important thing?”
“Not too sure,” he said. “That’s why I have it. I’m supposed to figure that out, but I’m not a very good detective.”
“Who hired you?” I asked.
“I did,” said a heavy voice from behind. The voice came from a tall, heavyset woman, with glazed eyes, blond hair and a round face.
“Who are you?” I asked. I looked at Guy for an answer. Guy wasn’t there. “Guy?” I asked.
“Probably cowering under the table,” the big woman said, sitting down where Guy had been sitting. “Names Chucki Palwinsky. I’m a private investigator.”
“Yeah, except I ain’t come cheap.” She waved the waitress over and ordered a coffee. “You see,” She looked around to see if anyone could see. “You see, I always hire Guy at half the cost and have him solve my crimes.”
That was when from under the table a great “Ah ha!” arose and there was a loud bump and the table shook violently. Both me and Palwinsky peaked under the table and found Guy Vandue laying sprawled on the floor, holding his head.
“Guy?” I asked.
Vandue climbed up to my booth and sat beside me, still holding onto that large bump that had formed where head met table.
“I knew you were a no good crook,” Vandue spat.
“Nonsense,” Palwinsky said, smiling malevolently. “I merely hire out, like all great companies do. I outsource.”
“Well, then I demand a higher rate.”
“Yeah, me too,” the waitress said, bring Palwinsky her coffee.
Chucki Palwinsky attempted to drink it, but her mouth felt searing pain—or so I assumed—because she slammed the coffee down and yelped in discomfort saying, “Damn that’s hot.”
“So what’s this key business?” I asked.
“The Golden Key was given to me by Mr. Nigel Schnell of Schnell Industrial Poodling,” Palwinsky said.
“The place that makes aerodynamically sound genetically engineered poodles?” I asked.
“They have the slogan: Quit Poodling Around.”
“Didn’t they have trouble teaching the dogs to fly?”
“They kept getting stuck in trees. Ever see a poodle up in a tree?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
“It’s quite the sight.”
“Well, what does this have anything to do with the key?” Vandue asked. He was never a good listener and this was probably the fourth time he was being told this information from Palwinsky.
“Schnell was given it at the behest of a very shady, mask-wearing character in the middle of the night. The mask-wearer broke into his house and presented it to him, saying that, ‘the lives of your poodles depend on this.’ And then they disappeared—mask and all.”
“What does Schnell make of it?”
“He didn’t,” Palwinsky said. “Now, Guy.” She reached over the table with her hand open, palm up. “Give me the key.”
“You told me not to give anyone the key,” Vandue said.
“Yes, but you can hand it to me.”
“You told me not to trust anyone.”
“But I’m the one who gave it to you.”
“All the more reason why I should be suspicious.”
“Just hand it over,” Palwinsky boomed. “Guy took out the key and hesitantly he opened his hand, palm up. The key rested in the center of his hand; it glinted from the florescent lights above.
That was when they came: two men, dressed in trench coats so large that they looked like walking trench coats. They had big briefcases and very big unhappy faces. They came up to the table and with anger and frustration simmering off them like steam off of a cup of Joe, they began to expel hateful words about poodles, detectives and coffee shops. They looked like trouble and I wanted no part of it.
“Check!” I shouted to the waitress.
“Give us the key!” the Trench Coats said after they entered.
“I don’t know what key you’re talking about,” Vandue said, closing his hand and tucking the key in his front pocket.
“We can do this the hard way,” the Trench Coats said. “Or we can do this the easy way.”
“Wait,” Palwinsky said, holding up her hands. “Let’s settle this like gentlepeople.”
The two large men in the trench coats pulled out guns.
“Is that how gentlepeople settle things?” I asked.
“It’s the 21st century,” Trench Coat # 1 said.
“We’ve had to get a little less gentle,” Trench Coat # 2 said. “We’re a product of the times.”
“Can we just talk this out?” Vandue asked.
The men in the trench coats looked at each other and then, silently and motionlessly agreeing on something, they turned back to Guy and said, “No.”
“Well, how about you answer our questions?” Palwinsky asked.
The men in the trench coats looked at each other and then, silently and motionlessly agreeing on something, they turned back to Palwinsky and said, “Yeah, alright.” They tucked the guns into their pockets.
“You have to come outside with us,” Trench Coat # 1 said.
“Are you going to hurt us?” Vandue asked.
The men in the trench coats looked at each other and then, silently and motionlessly agreeing on something, they turned back to Guy and said, “That isn’t important.”
“Do I have to go?” I asked. “I’ve got nothing to do with this.”
The men in the trench coats looked at each other—
“Can you please stop doing that,” I said to them. “It’s very annoying.”
“Sorry,” Trench Coat # 2 said.
“It’s a habit,” Trench Coat # 1 said.
“But you can continue drinking your coffee. You’re not part of this.”
“I do have to say,” I said to anyone who cared to listen; no one listened. “I wouldn’t go out there if I were you. You never know what could happen.”
“Come on,” Trench Coat # 1 said with a shrug at what I said. He waved Guy Vandue and Chucki Palwinsky outside.
And Guy Vandue and Chucki Palwinsky very hesitantly and with fear writ on their faces, walked outside where they were told exactly what the key was meant for and why it was so important. I could see this through the window. Palwinsky looked very interested in what was being told to her. Vandue looked very confused. The two men in the trench coats seemed delighted in getting the information off their chests. After their brief conversation, the two Trench Coats held their hands out for the key.
Vandue wasn’t having any of this and attempted to run, but before he could take a complete step, his foot got caught on the drain in the sidewalk and he did a whole 180. He landed on his back. Looking up, he watched as the key, which had flown out of his front pocket, fly upwards into the dusky sky. The key glinted in the city light.
Palwinsky jumped for the key, her arms splayed out, hands open.
Trench Coat # 1 and Trench Coat # 2 jumped for the key.
They key slipped between all of their hands as the three tumbled atop of each other, like footballers. The key slipped by all of them and went “plop” as it fell right into the drain, disappearing into darkness.
I saw all of this as I sat in the booth. Reaching for my coffee, I took a sip; it was just the right temperature.
The waitress showed up with the bill and set it on the table. I looked up at her and smiled and said, “Thanks for listening.”